In the last few months, a United Kingdom registered charity named Ellen MacArthur Foundation has begun work together with leading global plastic polluters, WRAP – also based in the UK, MAVA, and Kenya’s private sector to slow down the country’s plastic regulation.
They are doing this through the establishment of the Kenya Plastic Pact which is similar to other pacts that have been established in countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, and South Africa, among others.
Even though these pacts are marketed as national instruments meant to address the ever-growing problem of plastic pollution, their real intentions are to undermine legislation and slow down government intervention by giving the impression that industry has got this problem under control and therefore there is no need for more government regulation.
Kenya’s Extended Producer Responsibility law which is set to radically change how plastic waste is managed appears to be their real target.
This comes after the Washington Post reported late in 2020 that influential petrochemical corporations were lobbying the United States of America to enter a favorable trade deal with Kenya that would help flood Africa with plastics, something the Kenyan Government denied.
Among those who overwhelmingly condemned this move were UN Environment Chief, Inger Andersen, who termed the plan as outrageous.
How Ellen MacArthur Foundation Works
Ellen MacArthur Foundation works by setting up ambitious non-binding targets through the national pacts they launch.
The United States Plastic Pact, for example, has four targets. The first one is to come up with a list of unnecessary plastic packaging by 2021 and take measures to eliminate them by 2025. The second and third targets ensure that all plastic packaging produced in the US will either be reusable, recyclable, or can naturally degrade, with 50% of this being targeted to be recycled or composted by 2025. Lastly, the fourth target will see by 2025 all plastic packaging in the United States have at least 30% of recycled content.
On the African continent, the South Africa Plastic Pact was set up in 2020 and has leading polluting brands like Coca-Cola and Unilever among its founding and business members. The sub-Saharan leading greenwashing fixer, PETCO South Africa, is also a member. Civil society or vulnerable groups plays no role in this pact, yet it markets itself as collaborative and trailblazing. Like the US Pact, the South African one also has similar copy and paste targets with only the percentages changing. For the critical goal of effective recycling, the target is set at 30%.
It is unclear how the targets are arrived at and whether they take into consideration any national or regional dynamics such as the state of waste infrastructure or collection and recycling systems. They do not also make any mention of any financial investments required to achieve the targets. This, therefore, raises several fundamental questions.
The problem with Kenya Plastic Pact
The first question to ask is what purpose the Kenya Plastic Pact is meant to achieve, especially coming in the wake of significant progress by the country to develop an EPR law that already has a mechanism for target setting, reporting, and compliance requirements. With such a robust law, one wonders what Kenya Plastic Pact targets will really achieve especially since they are non-binding anyway. Wouldnt it have been prudent for Ellen MacArthur Foundation to support Kenya to implement the EPR law instead of establishing a parallel body for targets that is simply meaningless?
The second question is about legitimacy. The development of the Kenya Plastics Pact is being locally spearheaded by Sustainable Inclusive Business (SIB), an entity of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA). The Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Forestry for Kenya, Mr. Keriako Tobiko, is on record as alleging that KEPSA and another Business Membership Organization, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) are trying to undermine legislative efforts to solve Kenya’s plastic crisis.
With KEPSA then leading the establishment of the Kenya Plastic Pact and the failure by the South Africa Plastic Pact to involve civil society and vulnerable groups, this raises the vital question of whether such a pact is another industry-purpose greenwashing vehicle whose only purpose is to divert attention from the plastic crisis and delay and derail legislative progress. There is already precedence of this strategy having been employed by the Kenya Association of Manufacturers which established PETCO Kenya immediately after the government threatened to ban plastic bottles in 2018. PETCO Kenya then worked with Coca-Cola to delay legislation through media and government lobbying and began a non-transparent and questionable collection subsidy program as part of the greenwashing activities.
KAM has also launched the Kenya Plastic Plan in 2019 and Kenya Producer Responsibility Organization recently, activities which keen observers see as organizing undertakings whose core purpose is to water down the EPR law.
Third, there is no evidence that voluntary targets by industry ever contribute to progress. Coca-Cola and others have already made many voluntary pledges and goals in the past, all of which have been missed. In 2019, Coca-Cola committed to providing almost 4 Billion Kenya Shillings to support among others, the subsidy program at PETCO Kenya which would see the price of PET waste increase for collectors. There is no evidence that these funds were ever disbursed or they benefit recycling, with collectors still being paid an average of 5 Kenya Shillings per kilo for PETs for their slave labor. Even if all of the 2,000 metric tons Petco Kenya claims to have collected in that year were paid for by Coca-Cola money, which is unlikely, this would only amount to only 0.5% of pledged funds.
Lastly, in 2020, we worked with Changing Markets Foundation to release the Talking Trash report which comprehensively documents how the world’s leading plastic polluters work to derail and delay progressive legislation and solutions. Ellen MacArthur Foundation was adversely mentioned in that report.
The conclusion of the report is that voluntary commitments and targets such as those employed by Ellen MacArthur Foundation are useless unless there is an effective way to enforce compliance. The industry uses these non-binding pledges as part of the greenwashing rule book to successfully prevent effective regulation only for the commitments to be broken further down the line.
The moral question of plastic recycling in Kenya
Commitments and targets are not entirely a bad thing. But at what cost and who bears that cost? In Kenya, it is vulnerable communities, poor women, the mentally unstable, those struggling with drugs, and children who are often used as labor and they bear the cost. They often work on filthy dumpsites rummaging through toxic and pathogenic waste even in these tragic times of Corvid 19 – for plastics – without any social safety nets, while being promised non-existent incentives, so as to meet corporate boardroom targets!
This is not only inhuman but also criminal. With even more ambitious targets being planned by Ellen MacArthur Foundation, even more abuses will abound. The industry will pay them an additional shilling in subsidies and pretend they are helping them when indeed they are engaged in corporate slavery. Even the illicit drugs industry takes better care of its workers!
That is why organizations like Ellen MacArthur Foundation should attempt to understand a country’s dynamics before they bring their copy-paste solutions to Kenya. Backing mandatory recovery policies that support Deposit Return Schemes is one area of possible intervention. DRS is simply the jackpot of recycling and circular economy, ensuring nothing leaves the loop, but Ellen MacArthur Foundation and their funders are very keen to resist this as the Talking Trash report showed. They simply don’t want to pay the cost. They would rather a poor African child working at Dandora dumpsite in Nairobi pay the price and care little about the work conditions and mental health of Kenya’s waste collectors.
A slew of complex greenwashing movements
Ellen MacArthur Foundation pacts are not the only greenwashing initiatives by polluters. We also have Alliance to End Plastic Waste, Trash Free Seas Alliance, and Global Plastic Action Partnership. Some of these alliances work with leading non-governmental organizations in a complex greenwashing enterprise similar to that employed by the mafia and drug cartels only that theirs is a soft approach. They work hard to gain some kind of United Nations Environment recognition and then attempt a ‘state capture’ to drive the narrative on plastics. Sometimes they work with their governments to push for favorable trade agreements as is the case between the United States and Kenya as already seen. Sometimes they infiltrate legitimate causes within civil society such as World Cleanup Day.
In 2020 we highlighted how the organizers of World Cleanup Day may be aiding greenwashing, which resulted in direct threats, including lawsuits, from the organizers and their global collaborators from as far as the Philippines, Germany, The Gambia, India, and even here in Kenya. When they realized the threats would not work, they prioritized greenwashing as a key subject of their 2021 annual online conference in a bid to clean up their dirty undergarments. They have since maintained a low profile, only launching a low-key awareness campaign against cigarette butts litter here in Kenya while waiting for September to do more greenwashing. You will never hear them talk about the other issues raised in this article. Since they receive support from the Government of Estonia, UN Environment, UN-Habitat, Earth Day, Fridays for Future, among others, it is easy to see how this has become a difficult problem.
Will the Kenyan Government fall prey?
Lastly, Ellen MacArthur Foundation receives funding from Coca-Cola, Unilever, PepsiCo, Nestle, Danone, Mars, among other leading polluting brands. Therefore the Government of Kenya, which is being seduced to legitimize the Kenya Plastics Pact by becoming a member and have their logo appear alongside those of these leading consumer brands on a website, will have to ask themselves whether an organization aligned with these brands can be trusted to lead a fight against pollution in the country. It is a watershed moment for the Kenyan Government.
No wonder, Sustainable Inclusive Business could not respond to my email when I recently asked them about the Kenya Plastic Pact.
The clock is ticking for the government. Civil society and the public have been more than happy to let the legislative process take its course and let the consumer brands take all the flak. To be fair, our government has already shown a strong hand with significant policy implementations in the last five years. First with the ban on single-use plastic bags and in 2020 the ban of all forms of single-use plastics in our parks and protected areas, and now the EPR law. But once we move to the next phase and Coca-Cola’s plastics continue to destroy our fragile environments and KAM and KEPSA continue to lie about efforts in boardrooms, the people, particularly those who do the unrequited donkey work on dumps to recover plastics for recycling, will respond. Don’t doubt, they are also organizing! I keep hearing interesting things from them!
For this article, James Wakibia, a leading campaigner against single-use plastics in the country has observed, “We do not need foreigners as I saw in the webinar to discuss the Kenya Plastic Pact to tell us what to do. We need the government to uphold the constitution and protect the country from plastic pollution.”
Some officials from the Kenyan government who can not me mentioned because of the sensitivity of this matter are also shocked by efforts to establish the Kenya Plastic Pact.
In the meantime, Ellen MacArthur Foundation can flush their proposal down the toilet. Kenya will accept no more plastic colonialism.
Written by Betterman Simidi Musasia
Founder & Patron, Clean Up Kenya
Betterman is a sustainable public sanitation advocate and a pollution control evangelist. In 2015, after becoming extremely tired of seeing all the trash in Kenyan neighborhoods and hearing the authorities fake promises to clear the mess, he sold his trucking business to establish Clean Up Kenya. Today, the organization is a leading national sustainable public sanitation advocacy brand. In September 2020, he stepped down as Clean Up Kenya Chief Executive Officer and currently serves as Founder and Patron.