The oil industry has asked the US to pressure Kenya to change its world-leading stance against the plastic waste that litters Africa, according to environmentalists who fear the continent will be used as a dumping ground.
The request from the American Chemistry Council, whose members include major oil companies, to the Office of the United States Trade Representative came as America and Kenya negotiate what would be the first US bilateral trade deal with a country in sub-Saharan Africa.
That deal is expected to be a model for others in Africa, and its importance helped lead to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s White House visit with President Trump this year — a rarity for an African leader during this administration.
In 2017, Kenya imposed what was praised as the world’s strictest ban on the use, manufacturing and import of plastic bags, part of growing efforts around the world to limit a major source of plastic waste.
Environmentalists fear Kenya is now under pressure not only to weaken its resolve but to become a key transit point for plastic waste to other African countries.
The idea that Kenya’s government might weaken or do away with its ban under pressure from the US or oil industry has upset the country’s vibrant environmental community, which rallied support that also led to this year’s ban on other single-use plastics such as bottles in national parks, beaches and other protected areas.
“They want Kenya to reverse its strict limits on plastics, including 2017 plastic bag ban! It’s a NO!” tweeted James Wakibia, who pushed hard for Kenya’s plastic bag ban. He is now campaigning for all East African countries to ban “all unnecessary single-use plastic.”
In a statement, 350.org, an international non-profit campaigning to end fossil fuels, accused Big Oil of "hijacking" the free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations between Kenya and the US which, if successful, it would be the first US FTA with a country in sub-Saharan Africa.
Landry Ninteretse, Africa Team Leader at 350.org, said: “It's not surprising that oil companies are feeling the heat, with science consistently demonstrating the link between fossil fuels and climate change. Big oil’s time is up; the world is moving away from oil and gas. This proposal by oil companies to use their oversupply of oil to manufacture plastics and dump them in Africa is completely unacceptable.
"For decades, Big Oil has used its power and influence to deny climate change and exacerbate social injustices and inequalities. But its treacherous actions are now being exposed. Africa is not their garbage dump. Instead of bringing more pollution here, they must pay for years of damage already done. Africans are more vigilant than ever, and we will not accept any more destructive activities to take place across the continent - be it in Kenya, or any other country."
The April 28 letter from the American Chemistry Council’s director for international trade, Ed Brzytwa, seen by AP, urges the US and Kenya to prohibit the imposition of domestic limits on “production or consumption of chemicals and plastic” and on their cross-border trade.
“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,” the letter says. It was first obtained by Unearthed, an affiliate of the Greenpeace environmental organisation. The council repeated its request in a public commenting session in June.
China’s ban on imports of most plastic waste in 2018 has forced companies to seek new places to send it, but other countries including African ones increasingly are saying they don’t want it, either. Plastic waste meant for recycling has piled up in dumps in Kenyan cities.
Meanwhile, oil companies are under pressure as more countries, notably Kenya, aim to shift away from fossil fuels for their energy needs.
The fossil fuel industry, which is largely responsible for the climate crisis, is facing increasing pressure to pivot to new streams of profit creation with its overabundance of oil and gas. Global demand dropped this year due to the coronavirus pandemic which led to travel bans and industry slow downs.
A 2018 study by the International Energy Agency found that petrochemicals – components derived from oil and gas that are used in everything from plastic bags to packaging to detergents - were becoming the largest drivers of global oil demand, ahead of transportation.
The American Chemistry Council in a statement to the AP said “it is well understood that a bilateral trade agreement between the United States and Kenya will not override Kenya’s domestic approach to managing plastic waste or undermine its international commitments under the Basel Convention,” a global agreement which as of January will make it much more difficult to ship plastic waste to poorer countries. Nearly 190 countries have agreed to it, but not the US.
The council added: “In fact, ACC never mentioned Kenya’s approach to single use plastic bags even once in our comments.”
The Office of the United States Trade Representative did not respond to a request for comment. A US summary of negotiating objectives issued in May included this: “Establish rules that will ensure that Kenya does not waive or derogate from the protections afforded in environmental laws for the purpose of encouraging trade or investment.”
Kenya’s government via multiple ministries did not comment. But Kenyan trade minister Betty Maina in comments published on Tuesday by the local Star newspaper said Kenya will negotiate with the US “guided by Kenyan laws” and talks continue.
Kenya banned plastic bags in 2017, inspiring similar bans in other African countries whose streets, waterways and even trees have long been choked with the tattered bags.
Griffins Ochieng, who leads the Center for Environmental Justice and Development in Kenya, said any attempt to change the laws on plastics would be hazardous. “Africa is looking like a new dumping ground, we are not going to allow that,” he said.
“If true, it would be outrageous and unconscionable,” Inger Andersen, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, based in Kenya, tweeted. “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.”
Bans on single-use plastics are growing worldwide. A global review by UNEP in mid-2018 said 127 countries had adopted some form of regulation regulating plastic bags.
Some 37 of those countries were in Africa, more than in any other region, the UN said, adding that Kenya’s penalties for violations included up to four years in jail and a fine of up to $38,000.
Kenya put the US trade talks on hold earlier this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and they were finally launched in July.
The American Chemistry Council said it did not know whether the Office of the United States Trade Representative had taken its recommendations into consideration.
Associated Press contributed to this report
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