Bridging local fights to global struggles in resisting against corporate power

Themed article

A report published by the Center for International Environmental Law in September 2017 revealed that 99 per cent of plastics are produced from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. Further, researchers say that based on current projections, we will have produced 26 billion tons of plastic waste by 2050[1].

‘#breakfreefromplastic… aiming to end plastic pollution for good’

Today, the world is already drowning in plastic waste, and countries — even the developed ones — have not been able to cope. For the longest time, wealthy countries have been exporting plastics to China. However, in 2018 China shut its doors to low-grade plastic waste imports to protect its borders. The move put the global plastic recycling industry into chaos — exposing the loopholes of recycling.

A Materials Recovery Facility in San Fernando, Pampanga in the Philippines. This is a model Zero Waste city in the Philippines and a pioneer in city-wide plastic bag ban. Photo by Jed Alegado

In 2016, various non-governmental and environmental justice organizations formed #breakfreefromplastic - a movement that is aiming to end plastic pollution for good through its three-pronged strategy:

  • for governments to invest in more ecological Zero Waste solutions
  • for corporations to be responsible for the plastic pollution that their products and packaging have been causing
  • to change the dominant narrative with alternative, real and long-term solutions

Exposing corporate accountability in the plastic pollution crisis

Its corporate strategy work has produced significant results since then. In the last three years, the movement has demonstrated coordinated power through public actions and social media hashtags, shifted the media narrative towards corporate responsibility, and achieved significant shareholder votes and more progressive commitments from major corporations. In September 2017, #breakfreefromplastic member organizations in the Philippines conducted an unprecedented nine-day brand audit at Freedom Island[2]. This was replicated in 2018 during a World Environment Day celebration when 10 Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA - a worldwide alliance of grassroots groups, NGOs and individuals) members and partner organizations conducted brand audits in 18 states in India[3]. These brand audits proved to be the opening salvo for the 240 brand audits[4] conducted in 42 countries in the months that followed. In 2019, GAIA Asia Pacific quantified the waste generation in the Philippines using the findings of household waste assessments and brand audits conducted in various parts of the country. The report[5] is being used to push for policies to reduce plastic waste generation.

‘mobilizing citizens…has provided evidence-based data to support calls for corporate responsibility and accountability’

These worldwide coordinated brand audits have been putting much pressure on companies to be responsible and accountable for the ‘branded pollution’ that they have been causing. It also emboldened the Break Free From Plastic movement to issue a Corporate Leadership Challenge[6] in October 2018 and to reinforce its corporate call on the 3Rs: reveal how much plastic goes into markets and environments each year; reduce the amount of plastic produced and packaged; and reinvent how goods are packaged and delivered. 

Moreover, brand audits have been mobilizing citizen action and public awareness in identifying the real culprits behind the plastic pollution crisis. The industry has long been peddling the narrative that consumers and their behaviour are the ones to be blamed, while passing the burden of managing plastic wastes to governments using taxpayer money. Clearly, mobilizing citizens by conducting brand audits has provided evidence-based data to support calls for corporate responsibility and accountability.

Putting a human face to the plastic pollution and climate change problem

In 2018, I had the privilege of joining a two-week tour with seasoned activists Myrna Dominguez of the Asia-Pacific Network on Food Sovereignty from the Philippines and Lakshmi Narayan from KKPKP, a trades union of waste collectors and recyclers trade in Pune, India. Myrna, who used to be connected with the Leftist movement in the Philippines, is a champion of smallholder women food producers’ rights in the region, while Lakhsmi is a trade union activist dealing with the issues of waste pickers.

Lakshmi Narayan and Myrna Dominguez

During the tour we visited proposed fracking sites in Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania in the USA. In these cities, we met groups fighting fracking, and visited oil and gas facilities owned by large petrochemical corporations. Despite the differences in the level of struggles among these groups, one thing was clear: communities of colour and low-income communities are the ones suffering from the health and environmental impacts of these linked industries. They are the ones largely experiencing the bad impacts of ethane and methane pollution.

This was evident in Port Arthur, Karnes and Corpus Christi in Texas where Hispanic migrants living near the facilities are fighting their construction. In the state of Louisiana, particularly in St. James and St. John, African-American groups, with historical roots in slavery, are suffering from the health impacts of methane plants and oil pipelines which have health ramifications for the residents living in the area known as ‘Cancer Alley’. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, residents are greatly impacted by these proposed sites in Beaver and Allegheny counties.

These connected industries (plastic and fossil fuel), use unsustainable, violent and oppressive practices that harm not just consumers but the very people they employ because of labour practices, human rights abuses, concealment of scientific information from the public and, until now, their flat-out refusal to take responsibility for the havoc they cause.

With these visits, Lakhsmi, Myrna, and I showed how the impacts of plastic in countries in the Global South are connected to the large investments of global corporations in the construction of oil and gas facilities in the United States and the fracking in the ports of Europe.

‘solidarity is essential to fight the intersection of the oil and gas industries with the plastic manufacturing industries’

The response of the public outside the activist circle was amazing. In one of our public events, someone from the audience asked how they could help with the struggles of these fisher-folk and waste picker groups which Lakshmi and Myrna were leading. We tried to explain to our audiences that their struggles are the same as our struggles and that solidarity is essential to fight the intersection of the oil and gas industries with the plastic manufacturing industries which have bad impacts to our health, environment and livelihoods.

Convergence among movements from different races and from various kinds of struggles is necessary as we fight against big corporations espousing neoliberal principles. Uniting these groups from the upstream to the downstream of the plastic chain will bring about a broad yet solid front against capitalism and its excesses. From a campaigning and communications perspective, we need to put a human face on these issues in order to change the dominant industry-pedalled narrative of overconsumption and unsustainable production.

To fully #breakfreefromplastic, we should stop plastic where it starts.


Disclaimer: the author is currently the Regional Communications Lead of #breakfreefromplastic for Asia Pacific. Views published in this article are entirely his own.



[2] Groups Reveal Top Plastic Polluters Following Massive Beach Cleanup





Joseph Edward B. Alegado

Joseph Edward B. Alegado is an ISS alumnus. He is a communications practitioner and emerging development studies scholar from the Philippines.


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