Last week, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) acknowledged Kenya’s “stewardship” in the continental fight against plastic pollution; but if the past few months are anything to go by, its notoriously stringent anti-plastic laws may not have as firm a grip when it comes to corporate interference in domestic policy.
Only a few months have passed since the Kenyan government’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations with the United States (US) came under international scrutiny. In August, the Greenpeace investigative journalism unit-Unearthed discovered that the American Chemistry Council (ACC) lobbied the US State Representative to demand an immediate suspension of its single-use plastic bans.
Kenya’s ban on the use, manufacture and importation of single-use plastic carrier bags came into effect in 2017; it has since banned all single-use plastic from its national parks. The ACC wanted to reverse Kenya’s progress and make it a gateway to Africa for plastic trade – then sell us recycling as a “false solution” to the environmental catastrophe it would later cause.
The debacle has barely blown over and yet, recently, UNEP boldly named Kenya as an emerging leader in the fight against plastic pollution and among the first countries in Africa to sign the Clean Seas initiative.
While it is encouraging that Kenya's environmental stewardship has been acknowledged worldwide, since both officials and ordinary citizens have fought against the menace that single-use plastic has become in Africa, threats to the country's efforts remain real. Contraband plastic is already flooding the nation and “plastic islands” have tainted the landscape of Lamu, its beloved World Heritage site.
Kenya has invested heavily in both policy regulations and law enforcement to win the fight against plastic pollution. National Environment Management Authority of Kenya recently launched a new wave of surveillance to heighten checks on the outlawed plastic bags across the country - a response to the aforementioned wave of contraband plastic. There has never been a more important time for its government to be firm and to stay true to its efforts against the plastic pollution crisis, which is exacerbating climate emergencies.
The onus, however, is in both countries, not just Kenya. Each has a responsibility to make a trade right for the people and the planet, and not just free for corporations. The announcement that the negotiations about the free trade agreement are to continue shows that the deal is not completely off the table as it should be.
Joe Biden's administration needs to re-look at the proposed FTA with Kenya by revisiting the rationale of engaging. The proposed FTA with Kenya is asymmetrical in nature and has the potential of undermining regional integration in East Africa due to the fact that Kenya is in a customs territory with the rest of the EAC partner states.
Biden’s government should pay attention to the integration journey that the African countries have entered into under the spectrum of the African Continental Free Trade Area. Both parties must assess the implications of this FTA as it relates to the environment and ensure that the existing environmental laws that are in force are adhered to. Kenya has strong legislation that bans the importation of single-use plastics, so the FTA must be cognisant of this progress that is also replicated in 34 other African countries.
It is encouraging to note that the Biden administration has shown that addressing climate change sits high on their diplomatic agenda with Kenya. The current climate crisis remains one of the biggest threats to all of us. As the relationship between the plastic and petrochemical industries has become clear as day, so has plastic’s contribution to climate change.
As a product of fossil fuels, plastic production - and its incineration - releases harmful toxins into the environment which contribute to rising temperatures globally. If the new US government is true to its commitment to tackle the climate crisis, then rejecting the ACC’s proposal is a non-negotiable. In fact, any trade and investment agreement between the two countries must exclude any imports of plastic waste into East Africa.
The US’ focus on climate change could benefit from deepening co-operation with other countries around the world to come up with sustainable solutions that prioritise people and host communities. Its return to multilateralism is a great sign of strengthening solidarity with the rest of the world on areas of trade, environment and climate change given the fact that they have formally rejoined the Paris Agreement.
The world collectively faces a great challenge and we have no choice but to rally together against climate change, and respecting the measures that countries already have in place is a good start. Right now, there are no trade agendas or diplomatic ties that are more important than adhering to environmental standards and stopping the climate crisis.
Mr Njehu is Greenpeace Africa Senior Political Adviser. Mr Angelo is Greenpeace Africa Plastic Project Lead.