Clean Up Kenya Founder shares thoughts on a historic resolution to establish a global plastic treaty

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To end plastic pollution, The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5) endorsed a historic resolution that will forge an international legally binding treaty by 2024. In an interview with James Wakibia, a prominent Kenyan less-plastics campaigner, Betterman Musasia Clean Up Kenya Founder and Patron, shares his thoughts on the proposed treaty.

Who is Betterman Musasia?

I’m a sustainable public sanitation advocate based in Nairobi, the Founder and Patron of Clean Up Kenya, and previously, the organization’s Chief Executive Officer. Established in 2015, Clean Up Kenya’s core work is to run advocacy campaigns to increase visibility on the problem of waste, with the objective of fostering sustainable interventions from all stakeholders.  

Last week during the 5th sessions of United Nations Environmental Assembly in Nairobi over 175 countries passed a historic resolution to establish a global plastics treaty to stop plastic pollution, what was your reaction when you heard the news?

I expected that the countries will agree to pass a resolution to establish a global instrument because of the work that has been done at previous United Nations Environment Assemblies. Naturally, I saw the development of a treaty as the most logical conclusion otherwise the member states and activists would have suffered negotiating fatigue.

Delegates react when a global resolution to end plastic pollution was adopted at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi during the UNEA5 conference. Photo JamesWakibia/WethankMedia

Will a global plastics treaty end plastic pollution?

Because of the sluggish nature of environmental multilateral agreements, the treaty is unlikely to solve the plastics crisis in the medium term. After all the politics and further yearly negotiations, the real impact will begin to be visible by 2040. To achieve this earlier, there will need to be an unprecedented reduction in the production of virgin plastics and very heavy investments in waste management in the developing world. I don’t see the countries agreeing to a framework to solve the crisis in the medium term.

When the treaty is ready do you think all countries will unanimously support it?

It is likely that a majority of the countries will support this treaty. For this to happen though, this treaty will likely be modeled on the 2015 Paris Agreement where countries will be required to submit voluntary plastic control plans every so many years, thus postponing the problem for another year or so. This model is preferred by many countries because it is less ‘controversial’.

What are other ways that governments should focus on to reduce plastic waste leaking into the environment before the treaty is implemented?

Europe provides some good case studies in the management of plastic waste. Deposit Refund Schemes have proved important in the management of certain aspects of plastics. If these schemes can be rapidly expanded, governments can require corporations to increase the amount of recycled content that is used in making new packaging, thus enabling a circular economy.

Governments must also pass legislation to restrict unnecessary single-use plastics. The Plastics Pacts models being developed by organizations like Ellen MacArthur Foundation despite being fronted by leading corporations, provide a framework for identifying what these unnecessary single-use plastics are and when they can be phased out.

Lastly, plastic pollution is to a large extent a waste management problem, particularly in developing countries.  It is therefore critical that investments in waste management be increased. In many cases, the infrastructure needs to be improved, particularly in the segregation of waste at source, collections, transportation, recycling, and treatment.  In other cases, this has to be backed by national legislation.

Lastly, governments will have to prioritize investments in large-scale campaigns targeting human behavior. This would help reduce littering and illegal dumping of plastic which is then washed into marine bodies.

UNEP Director, Inger Andersen compared the resolution for a binding plastics treaty to 2015 Paris climate change accord, do you share the same views?

UNEP Executive Director, Inger Andersen, addressing delegates during the 5th Session of United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA5) in Nairobi. Photo JamesWakibia/WethankMedia

I agree with Inger Andersen that this is a watershed moment but am not very optimistic that the treaty will have an immediate impact.

If the treaty takes the road of the 2015 Paris Agreement, it is going to take many years before its impact is seen. I can see countries pledging to achieve zero waste by 2050 under a global plastic treaty and others being non-committal on the reduction of the production of virgin plastics for several years to come.

This means the global treaty will likely only become a roadmap. It will then be up to the individual countries to make ambitious plans to address the crisis in the medium term.

If you ask me, the amendment made to the Basel Convention Treaty in 2019 to make transboundary transportation of plastic waste illegal is more significant. I would suggest the definition of plastic waste needs to be expanded under this treaty. Most second-hand commodities such as clothing, office, and household appliances contain plastic content and poor countries have unduly been paying the waste management price of these commodities. Because these may still have some use in the developing countries, developed countries will need to prioritize helping poor countries to improve waste management infrastructure.

The treaty is supposed to put caps on production of single-use plastics or virgin plastics, how do you think this will be done, knowing most plastic industries make lots of money from such plastics?

It is impossible to put caps on the production of single-use plastics without a market view approach. The treaty will have to decide whether certain single-use plastics are necessary and whether the essential ones have alternatives that have a lesser impact on the environment and the economy.

As for virgin plastics, some countries have already started considering new packaging to have certain percentages of recycled material and some plastic corporations agree.

Discussions in these areas must continue. It will be interesting to see how the treaty will address these questions.

A Plastic waste art installation by Canadian activist and artist, Benjamin von Wong on display outside the United Nations Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi. Photo JamesWakibia/WethankMedia

Waste pickers are the drivers of circular economy and without them there wouldn’t be circular economy, will the global plastics treaty address their plight and accommodate them in developing modern plastics economy?

In developed countries ‘waste pickers’ is not a problem and waste pickers play a peripheral role in the plastics economy. This is therefore a developing world problem and it can be linked to poverty and systems failures. Thus, it is not possible to solve the problem of waste pickers without addressing the two.

As waste management improves and the regulation of plastics takes effect as anticipated by a global plastic treaty, the waste pickers will be impacted the most. Many will lose their source of livelihood and will likely fall further down the socio-economic strata. Any suggestions that they will be absorbed into formal waste management is just being optimistic.

Unfortunately, organizations working to expand the rights of waste pickers in the developing world have not completely understood these dynamics. For example, here in Kenya, there are attempts by non-governmental organizations to unionize waste pickers. To do this is to accept their condition will not change and thus a need to be members of a cooperative. The truth, however, as the macro environment change, waste pickers will find themselves exposed.

There are other problems. A majority of waste pickers in a country like Kenya are vulnerable women, men, and children. How do you unionize children, men, and women who live rough on dumpsites and streets, some having tragic drug addiction problems?

It is therefore very ignorant to imagine that waste pickers will play any role in a new plastics economy.

My suggestion has always been that waste pickers must be classified as very vulnerable persons like refugees who need rehabilitation and socio-economic empowerment. They do not need unionizing. The global plastics treaty can help the plight of waste pickers by setting up a Global Waste Pickers Fund with both governments and corporations contributing to this fund and setting up an elaborate framework to compensate them retrospectively for their work in enabling a circular economy and going forward improving their lives.

A waste picker carries a load of plastic bottles to a recycling center near Gioto Dumping site in Nakuru. Photo JamesWakibia/WethankMedia

Earlier you had stated that you would like to see a robust treaty on plastics, is the treaty’s focus on plastic full life cycle approach what you anticipated?

It would have been an absolute failure of the global community if the resolution to establish a plastic treaty had not focused on the lifecycle of plastics. Commentaries will now commence from different actors on how the treaty should look like. I will also make my contributions as the process goes on.

How do you think the treaty will be implemented?

It will be interesting to follow the development of this treaty and see what different stakeholders will propose. There are many who are saying this treaty will likely follow the 2015 Paris Agreement where countries will be asked to submit voluntary plastic control plans every so many years with more negotiations and fewer concessions being made every few years. If that is what will end up happening, many will view this process as a failure. I’m however very optimistic that as the years drag by, the dream of a plastic litter-free world will be realized.

Is there anything you would like to add regarding your work or the plastics treaty?

In conclusion, as a public sanitation advocate, I’m worried that the Government of Kenya will use this treaty development process to delay progressive national legislation and investments in fixing the waste infrastructure in the country. The change of guard in the country with the coming general elections will also see reorganization in government, with those tasked with environment management being affected. It is in our interests that we get more progressive-minded technocrats who can help deliver the dream of a plastic pollution-free country.

This interview was first published by James Wakibia on his blog.

ABOUT CLEAN UP KENYA

Clean Up Kenya was established in 2015 to advocate for and promote sustainable public sanitation in Kenya. Since then we have become the de-facto national public sanitation advocacy brand. We are also experts in community mobilizing for cleanups. We have done numerous cleanups over the years, some of which have been attended by over 1000 volunteers on singular sites. At the core of our work is honest and actual engagement in communities – not PR events. We also run advocacy campaigns holding duty bodies, consumer brands, green-washing NGOs, and other stakeholders to account for unsustainable public sanitation in Kenya and the global South. We receive no funding for our work but collaborate with others on projects.