By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
I’m going to take a break from COVID-19 and election coverage to write about a pernicious campaign by U.S.-based plastic pushers tp use the free trade mantra to dump more plastic in Africa (as well as the UK).
Readers with long memories will no doubt recall the infamous Larry Summers World Bank memo on pollution and developing countries.
More recently, many of these countries are slowly waking to the environmental costs of plastic First by following China’s lead in not accepting plastic waste imports, and then by implementing their own single-use plastic bans, these countries have wakened to the dangers of excess plastic.
Now,as the plastic pushers see it, we can’t have that, can we?
As DeSmog UK tells the story in Campaigners Tell Kenyan Government ‘Don’t Backslide on Plastics’ in US Trade Deal:
Campaigners are calling on the Kenyan government to protect the country from an influx of plastic pollution as a consequence of a new free trade agreement with the US.
An online petition, organised by Greenpeace, calls on officials to reject terms in any new agreement that would make it easier for the US to export its plastic to Kenya. The “Do Not Backslide on Plastics” campaign already has over 21,000 signatures.
It was launched after revelations by Greenpeace’s investigative journalism unit Unearthed that showed the American Chemistry Council (ACC) lobby group was pushing the US Trade Representative to include terms that would contradict Kenya’s recent efforts to curb its plastic consumption.
In public letters to the US Trade Representative and US International Trade Commission, the Council writes: “Kenya could serve in the future as a hub for supplying US-made chemicals and plastics to other markets in Africa through this trade agreement.”
The ACC is backed by fossil fuel companies including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, Total and BP and major agri-chemical companies including Bayer, BASF, FMC and Corteva.
The collapse of world oil prices means that fossil fuel companies are desperate to maintain and expand plastic production as a means to use up fossil fuels. After incurring the global warming cost of producing the stuff, the plastic waste mist go somewhere. The EU’s waste management policy means that these companies are finding it more difficult to expand plastic production or disposal into Europe: since single-use plastic bans coupled with the EU’s circular economy policy, means fewer EU outlets for plastic. As Desmogblog has documented, this has led to increased dumping of plastic waste in Africa (see Oil Industry’s Shift to Plastics in Question as Report Warns $400 Billion in Stranded Assets Possible), not to mention eventually finding their way to oceans, where testifying anecdotally, they befoul the diving in some of the most remote places on the planet (see Plastics in Oceans Will Triple By 2040, Absent Immediate Drastic Action).
Many years ago, IIRC, I read a piece in The Nation in which Frank Zappa suggested that Czechslovakia should shift immediately from a policy of improving its woeful landline infrastructure and instead jump all in on developing mobile ‘phone technology. It gives you some idea how long ago this recommendation was, as Czechoslovakia hadn’t yet split, and most still relied on landlines.
Now, why am I telling you this?
Merely that many developing countries are implicitly following this Zappa Rule and have come to realize that one way to improve their waste management capacity is not to go the way of “advanced” economies – and instead just to say no to increasing their use of plastic in the first instance. Less plastic consumed, less plastic to dispose of.
China has implemented a single use plastic ban, and India mulls the same – although I’m not sure how plans have been affected by the pandemic (see Plastics Watch: China to Ban Single-Use Plastics, Malaysia Rejects Waste Shipments.).
The plastic pushers realize that their ability to bully opponents such as India and especially China is limited.
Yet they can continue to use trade deals to bully developing economies (and other similarly desperate countries). Hence the Kenya situation. I follow US, European, and Asian developments. but I admit I don’t know much about African policy, so allow me to turn to DeSmog UK again:
Greenpeace is asking Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Trade, Industrialisation and Enterprise Development, Betty Maina, “to commit to Africa’s Plastic-free vision” as the country negotiates with the US.
Rwanda pioneered a ban on single use plastic bags in 2008, followed by Kenya in 2017 and Tanzania in 2019. This year Kenya marked World Environment Day by introducing a ban on single use plastic in all beaches, forests and conservation areas.
Fredrick Njehu, Senior Political Advisor for Greenpeace Africa, says most of those who signed the petition are Kenyans, many of them young and alarmed at the prospect of their country being turned into a gateway for the export of plastics to the rest of Africa.
“This is not solely a Greenpeace petition, it is a people’s petition. The number of people who have signed the document so far shows there is lots of concern among the public. We are hoping to get an audience with the minister to officially handover the document and explain our opposition,” Njehu said.
An ACC spokesperson told Unearthed that its activity was driven by a concern that new regulations “could very well limit the ability of African and other developing countries to properly manage plastic waste.”
Climate Change Denial
Regular readers know U.S.national energy policy, as well as our lack of any serious proscriptions on the use of plastic, is firmly in the hands of climate change denialists – at least at the moment. Yet U.S energy policy prior to Trump was much more pro-fossil fuels than is commonly recognized, so Joe Biden may be less of a saviour in regard to plastic even if he wins on Tuesday. Additionally, the role of plastic pushing in creating a waste management criss, as well as exacerbating global warming, was also unheralded. I’ve seen nothing to suggest this element of policy will change anytime soon, especially as the pandemic continues to rage.
DeSmog UK has documented how plastic pushers are not just focused n developing economies, but have attempted to foist climate change denial rhetoric and weakened environmental regulation on the UK as well. And who knows, as the UK is not in a strong negotiating position as it seeks post-Brexit trade deals, plastic pushers may have their way:
The ACC has a history of pushing to slow action on climate change and weaken environmental regulations, through its donations and lobbying activity.
Beneficiaries of the ACC include the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), which has claimed there is “no scientific consensus concerning global warming”, and Republican Senator and infamous climate science denier James Inhofe.
The ACC is also affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which works with corporations including ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Peabody Energy, and Reynolds Tobacco to weaken regulations in state-level legislation.
The ACC’s lobbying efforts go beyond the Kenya-US deal. DeSmog previously revealed how the group is working to water down environmental regulations in a US-UK free trade deal.
The ACC told a trade hearing in January 2019 that a US-UK trade deal should include “investor-state-dispute-settlements,” which have been used by companies to sue governments attempting to put in place stronger environmental protections, as well as “regulatory cooperation,” widely seen as US-trade speak for watering down regulations.
In May 2020, it published a joint statement with the UK’s Chemical Industries Association in an effort to push both US and UK governments to mirror these demands.
The Bottom Line
Plastic pushers will continue to attempt to have their way with us, whether in the U.S, Africa, or the UK. Under cover of the pandemic, they continue to promote the use of plastic. Whoever is next elected, he’ll not resist this scourge.