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Plastics | 15 September 2022

Plastics on trial: a briefing series on evolving liability risks related to plastics 4) Waste disposal & recycling
Plastics
Climate litigation

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Plastics on trial: a briefing series on evolving liability risks related to plastics 4) Waste disposal & recycling

In Brief 4, we explore how unmanaged waste affects the environment and people. But even when plastic waste is managed in formal waste management facilities, the outcomes for the environment, local communities and human rights can be severe. In Brief 4, we review existing legal challenges to incineration – a widespread and growing form of waste management, as well as exploring ways in which companies promoting recycling, ‘chemical-recycling’ and plastic-offsetting initiatives could be challenged in future.

  • Incineration of waste involved the controlled burning of waste into ash, gases and heat. In addition to producing GHG emissions and toxic by-products and emissions, incineration facilities are disproportionately located in low-income and marginalized areas, giving rise to social and environmental justice impacts. The construction of incinerators is already fiercely opposed by citizen groups and environmental NGOs, including through legal action. Many such cases are brought against governments and municipalities planning such projects, but companies are exposed to direct legal action too – either through injunctions preventing them from building out, or in the case of UK court action, damages for harm to health and quality of life experienced by local residents.
  • Recycling rates remain low, despite these being the area of focus of the plastic policies of corporate plastic-users. Earlier this year, an investigation was launched by the Attorney General of California into efforts by fossil fuel and petrochemicals companies to “[perpetuate] a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis”. If the investigation confirms wrongdoing, fines, lawsuits and legal orders for remediation costs could follow, representing a major risk to the companies involved.
  • Industry has also promoted new, so-called ‘chemical recycling’ technologies as a solution to the plastics problem. This has been a subject of international concern and criticism due greenhouse gas and toxic emissions associated with chemical recycling, as well as concerns on commercial viability. We consider how litigation could develop in relation to these initiatives, as well as the spate of ‘plastic offsetting’ initiatives that have emerged in recent years.

Read Brief 1) Greenwashing.

Read Brief 2) Hazardous chemicals.

Read Brief 3) In the environment.