It has been found that the oil and chemical industries, in the midst of negotiations between the US and Kenya over a bilateral trade deal between the two countries, have been asking the US to put pressure on Kenya to change its plastic waste policies. The request was in an April 28 letter sent by the American Chemistry Council to the Office of the United States Trade Representative. It was from their director for international trade, Ed Brzytwa, and it urged Kenya and the US to prohibit placing domestic limits on chemicals and plastic production or consumption, along with cross-border trade. Members of the American Chemistry Council include, amongst others, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell, and Dow Chemical. It was first discovered by Greenpeace affiliate Unearthed and reviewed by news agencies include the Associated Press and the New York Times. One part of the letter said “We anticipate that Kenya could serve in the future as a hub for supplying U.S.-made chemicals and plastics to other markets in Africa.”
Kenya had banned plastic bags in 2017, which led to other countries in the continent adopting similar bans, as they struggled with issues including streets, waterways, and trees being filled with bags. Single-use plastic bans have been a growing regulation worldwide, with a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) review in 2018 stating that 127 countries had adopted some regulations regulating plastic bags. 37 of these countries, more than any other region, were in Africa. Kenya’s penalties for violating the ban can include a maximum of four years imprisonment and a fine of up to $38,000.
In addition to this law, Kenya was one of the over 180 countries that signed onto the Basel Convention, which makes it more difficult to ship plastic waste to developing countries. Petrochemicals and plastics industries fought that deal and remain opposed to it. From the next year, this deal will make it harder for affluent countries, such as the US, to send their waste to less affluent countries. The US additionally did not ratify the Basel Convention, which means they would not be able to send waste to member countries at all.
Environmental activist James Wakibia, a leading figure in the fight to ban plastic bags in Kenya and now campaigning to ban unneeded single use plastic in all East African countries, tweeted “They want Kenya to reverse its strict limits on plastics, including 2017 plastic bag ban! It’s a NO!”
Leader of the Center for Environmental Justice and Development in Kenya, Griffins Ochieng, said “Africa is looking like a new dumping ground, we are not going to allow that.” Member Dorothy Otieno said “My concern is that Kenya will become a dumping ground for plastics… and not just for Kenya, but all of Africa.”
Inger Anderson, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, tweeted “If true, it would be outrageous and unconscionable.” “We @UNEP are so proud of our host nation #Kenya’s strong lead on reducing plastic waste and forcing a shift away from single use plastic.”
As the US and Kenya are undergoing trade negotiations, it has been clear that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta wants to make a deal. The plastics and petroleum industries’ lobbying and proposals stem from declining profits for these industries as the global fight against climate change ensues. Shifts away from fossil fuel consumption has elevated industry concerns about finding other uses for oil and gas supplies.
Industry has spent over $200 billion on chemical and manufacturing plants over the past decade, in the US. With current US plastic consumption being 16 times higher than less affluent countries, along with movement away from single-use plastics, selling more plastics domestically has become difficult.
1 billion pounds of plastic waste in 2019 was exported out from the US to 96 countries, including Kenya, for recycling. But a significant amount of this waste ends up polluting rivers and oceans. China closing its ports from plastic waste imports in 2018 forced exporters to look for other places. Resultantly, exports to Africa quadrupled in 2019 from the prior year.
The effect of industry lobbying has been significant in many trade talks, including the ones between Mexico and Canada in 2018. In those talks, chemicals and pesticides manufacturers were able to establish terms that made it more difficult for these countries to regulate those industries.
In February 2020, Kenyatta and US President Donald Trump announced that they would be pursuing a free trade agreement. The desire to secure an agreement emanates from Kenya wanting to permanently secure the current benefits from trade with the US via the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGAO). Under that agreement, qualifying sub-Saharan African countries, including Kenya, have enhanced market access to the US. Securing a free trade deal with the US offers certainty in case AGOA fails to renew in 2025.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) has regulations that form a Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), which allows developed countries to offer non-reciprocal preferential treatment, such as duty-free imports, on products from developing countries. The US GSP programme involves exports from Least Developed Countries (LDCs) receiving duty-free access to the US. Kenya is the only EAC country that the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has not designated as an LDC. Kenyan exports to the US are therefore only covered under AGOA, and not GSP. In the event that AGOA expires, not securing a trade deal would give other EAC member countries an advantage in US trade, as they are in the GSP programme, unlike Kenya.
Kenya’s apparent urgency to strike a deal with the US has petrochemicals industry sensing an opening.
Daniel Maina, founder of Kisiwani Conservation Network in Mombasa, Kenya, said “If they were to force this sort of trade agreement on us, I fear we will be easy prey.”
Industry response to the global fight against plastic waste consists of forming the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. It pledged $1.5 billion to fight plastic pollution, but that amount was criticized for being very small compared to industry plastic infrastructure investments.
The uncovering of lobbying by the American Chemical Council, in the midst of trade talks between the US and Kenya, is yet another example of the influence industry groups have on different international and domestic policies, including environmental policies. In developing countries, this influence can be outsized and serve as significant obstacles against the work of environmentalists and other groups against pollution in their country. Plastic waste remains a significant issue and by-product of plastic manufacturing. The export of this waste to less affluent countries contributes to some of the significant environmental issues in those countries. Without curbing these exports, plastic pollution cannot be dealt with effectively. In the face of these revelations, environmental lobbying and greater awareness of the influence of these industry groups and lobbyists is essential to counteracting those effects. Local groups in Kenya remain active and international support and awareness is also needed, as it is US chemical and plastics industry groups that have been at the forefront, pushing against Kenyan plastic pollution laws.
Developing an effective framework to counteract such industry lobbying, which has proven to be effective in the past, is crucial to preventing the corporate interference and disruption of local and international laws that are designed to address issues that have been amplified by significant industrial externalities.