Businesses warned of human rights blind spots in recycled plastic supply chains

Image: The Circulate Initiative

The framework has been published by the Circulate Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to tackling the ocean plastic pollution challenge in emerging economies. It is hoped that, as plastic recycling value chains scale up, the framework can help to address prevailing human rights issues faced by waste workers including low pay, forced labour and exposure to health and safety risks.

Tools detailed in the framework will help companies to evaluate human rights conditions in their recycled plastics supply chain and to intervene to improve outcomes. The Circulate Initiative hopes the framework brings “rigour and consistency” to these efforts.

More than 40 organisations were involved in the development of the framework, including environmental charities, worker rights groups, recycling firms and businesses sourcing recycled plastic. Themes covered in the framework include economic empowerment, gender equality and worker health and safety.

The framework is designed to align with existing internationally-recognised tools such as the Fair Circularity Principles, so as to reduce the data burden. It will be tested in Indonesia, India, Kenya and Vietnam to assess whether further updates are needed.

Around 20 million people are believed to work informally in waste management globally, most of them located in the global south. They make up some 60% of the world’s recycling workforce.

The Circulate Initiative’s director of programmes Annerieke Douma said improving their human rights conditions “is an ethical, legal and commercial imperative for any business operating today”.

Brands such as HP and the Coca-Cola Company have signalled their support for the NGO’s responsible sourcing work. The Initiative has an overarching target to improve the lives of 50,000 waste workers by 2025 with the support of as many brands and investors as possible.

Previous Circulate Initiative analysis has revealed chronic under-investment in waste management in Asia, Africa and Latin America. They collectively accounted for less than 9% of investments between 2018 and 2023. This has left informal waste workers at risk.

Plastics Treaty progress

The news comes as the UN works to develop the world’s first treaty on reducing and ultimately ending plastic pollution.

Negotiators from more than 120 countries met in Canada in April to further shape the treaty, but observers noted that many technical details still remain to be finalised.

Something we do already know about the treaty is that it will cover plastic production as well as waste management. It will include measures to reduce virgin plastic production levels, with a focus on the most harmful, hard-to-recycle and unnecessary materials and products.

A Plastic Planet and PlasticFree have this week claimed that businesses not prepared to embrace the ‘post-plastic economy’ could face up to $100bn of annual financial risk by 2040.

Risks could arise through non-compliance with regulation and legislation; reputation risk; stranded assets and legal fees. On the regulatory piece, more than 730 new laws have come into effect globally on plastic pollution since 2012.

In partnership with creative agency Fashion Snoops, A Plastic Planet and PlasticFree have set out a string of recommendations that businesses can follow to reduce plastic use while maintaining affordability, convenience and, ultimately, profitability. These include exploring refillable products, as-a-service business models and novel plastic-free packaging formats.

Businesses should predicate this work on fully understanding material supply chains and their related environmental impacts, with verified data, and tracking global plastics legislation.

Fashion Snoops’ head of content and innovation Jenna Guarascio said: “Eliminating plastic is more than a sustainability strategy—it’s a lucrative business manoeuvre that will future-proof companies and unlock opportunity. The best part? An abundance of groundbreaking, cost-effective innovations are ready and waiting to be harnessed. “

Related feature: Can plastic credits be a viable tool for businesses?

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie