The Centre for Financial Accountability recently concluded its workshop ‘Plastics: A Toxic Love Story’, organised in collaboration with the Sambhaavnaa Institute between May 17 and 21, 2024 at the Institute’s Kandbari campus. The primary objective of the workshop was to provide a comprehensive understanding of plastic’s “death cycle”, which can often be obscured by misguided narratives and discussions limited to the issue of waste management. The sessions in the workshop aimed to connect the dots between fossil fuel extraction, production of polymers, manufacturing and use of plastic products and their post-consumption management or what is popularly referred to as plastic waste management, while exploring themes including but not limited to state-capital nexus, waste colonialism, and social and environmental justice.

The workshop’s relevance is underscored by the prevailing trend of significant investment driving the expansion of India’s polymer and plastics industry. With a consistent annual growth rate of 3.4%, the industry’s trajectory is projected to continue until 2028. However, beneath this growth lies a concerning reality: the monopolistic control exerted by a handful of oligarchs within the polymer industry. These entities not only dictate the production of raw materials but also wield influence over downstream plastic production and disposal practices, shaping media narratives and policy agendas. The hand-in-glove relationship of this Big Capital with the state can ensure that the voices of the communities affected by the entire life span of plastics remain muffled. Against this backdrop, the programme sought to unravel the complexities of this narrative and bolster the demand for accountability within the polymer industry for its far-reaching implications.

The five-day workshop featured a diverse group of resource persons, each bringing expertise from across the upstream, midstream, and downstream domains of the plastic life span as well as insights into national and global policy regimes. It was attended by an equally diverse group of participants including students, a teacher, aspiring and working entrepreneurs, policy enthusiasts, documentary filmmakers, and development and social sector professionals, among others. They enriched the discussions with their insights, questions, dialogues, contemplations, and sharing of their own experiences. The programme used a variety of methodologies including interactive lectures and discussions facilitated by experts, film screenings and collective reflection, readings and presentations, and group and individual exercises, amongst others, to enable participants to reflect on their current understanding and help deepen it. 

The sessions addressed the issues pertaining to the upstream, midstream, and downstream sections of the plastic lifespan distinctly, however, without letting the interconnectedness of the three out of sight. The part of the workshop dedicated to the upstream section started with fundamentals such as oil and gas extraction, refining, import, policy regimes governing oil and gas, financing of the petrochemical industry, and its impact on the climate and environment. These sessions helped demystify the upstream operations and bring them into the ambit of the scrutiny of the participants. The midstream sessions laid bare the hazards that accompany plastic consumption by explaining the methods and chemicals used for plastic production and their inherent toxicity. These sessions also spoke about the lack of corporate accountability and otherwise, the hollowness of it. The downstream sessions focused on the false solutions, the waste-to-energy industry and is impact, and the concept of Zero Waste. The participants were able to understand the significance of the Just Transition framework and the ongoing Global Plastics Treaty negotiations, following a holistic understanding of the plastic life span.

At the third edition of this workshop, the utility of creating a dedicated space for an immersive learning experience could be rediscovered – especially as the subject of petrochemicals and plastic production can be often overlooked under the presumption that it’s too technical, intense, or dry.  The interactive sessions at the programme, however,  allowed participants not only to explore data and evidence but also to connect with human stories of suffering, resistance, resilience, and movements. As attendees reflected on their learnings, they spoke of the profound realisation of the pervasive toxicity of plastics, the unabated expanse of the fossil fuel economy, and its direct relation to the climate crisis. With this deepened understanding, participants felt that they were better positioned to advocate for social and environmental justice, challenging the status quo, and demanding accountability within the polymer industry.

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