States must demand global action on toxic plastics

Livestock feeding on garbage at a dumping site in Lamu. [Elvis Ogina, Standard] 

The 5th session of United Nation Environment Assembly (UNEA) that will be held in Nairobi from February 28 provides an opportunity for governments to step up efforts to protect and restore the natural world on which our economies and societies depend.

A key area of deliberation will be on new international treaty to address the plastic crisis and marine litter that has turned into a big menace in Africa.

Eleven million metric tonnes of plastic are dumped into the ocean each year and this figure is projected to double by 2030 and nearly triple by 2040. Africa holds 19 of the world’s 50 biggest dumpsites and more will be opened if UNEA member states fail to find a solution to the plastic menace.

The solution is not simply waste management; it’s about chemical and plastic industries taking responsibility for their plastic products. Africa is not a major plastic or chemical producer. Toxic chemicals cross our borders under the guise of new plastic products and used plastic material for recycling.

If unregulated, Africa will continue to be one of global dumping sites of unregulated plastics from sources abroad, with these countries offering fake solutions in the name of recycling and promoting a circular economy.

Compounding the plastic problem, is the invisible toxic threats to our health from the chemicals used to make plastics. This week, reports have revealed that in several countries, including Tanzania, where toxic chemicals restricted in Europe were detected in new plastic baby bottles. In other words, African children are being exposed to toxic chemicals and there are no international controls on these hazardous chemicals.

There is lack of transparency on what chemicals are added to plastics during production. Indeed, there are no international rules that force plastic producers to label or disclose what is in their products. It makes it impossible for African consumers and recyclers to know what chemicals are present in the plastics.

The toxic circular economy is exposing people to health impacts like cancers, diabetes; kidney, liver, and thyroid impacts; metabolic disorders and neurological impacts, among others.

As nations gather for UNEA, policymakers from Africa, with the support of other countries and the including EU, have tabled a proposal for a new plastic treaty to address hazardous chemicals in plastic as well as plastic production. Unfortunately, countries from major plastic and chemical producing and exporting nations want to make the treaty only about plastic waste management, denying the reality of how plastics poison our countries.

The treaty must address hazardous chemicals in plastics and come up with ways of holding polluters legally and financially accountable. It should provide remedies to affected communities, and mitigate the toxic impacts plastics and their toxic additives have on the enjoyment of human rights throughout their life cycle, particularly on communities that are the least responsible for plastic production.

Ms Kombo is CEJAD Kenya and IPEN Africa Communications adviser