In February 2020 we wrote to Coca-Cola and PETCO Kenya (at their invitation) to highlight issues of greatest concerns in the management of Kenya’s #PlasticCrisis. Petco Kenya promised to write back after ‘internally reviewing the matters raised’ while Coca-Cola responded with a system-generated email stating that the matter had been forwarded to a relevant department and they would get back to us. After three months of no further communication from both organisations, we have decided to make our concerns public. This open letter accuses Coca-Cola of; disregarding Kenya’s inadequate waste infrastructure when they began a switch from returnable glass to PET bottles, hijacking industry’s initiative to solve Kenya’s PET waste problem to advance their global agenda on plastics, committing human rights and child labour violations through PETCO Kenya subsidy initiatives, and finally questions the corporation commitments to the Kenyan people.
We write to strongly protest Coca-Cola’s handling of the plastic pollution crisis in Kenya since you rolled out the use of PET bottles for your products. Just like plastic bags which were banned in Kenya in 2017, plastic bottles together with other single-use plastics continue to be the biggest contributor to Kenya’s public sanitation crisis. These bottles continue to choke our drainage systems, pollute our marine ecosystems and are an ever-present eyesore in our communities. The cost of managing this stream of waste on community resources, health, livelihoods and the economy is yet to be properly quantified.
We are aware since the ban of the single-use plastic bags, there has been recognition by Coca-Cola and others of the reality of the problem of PET bottles waste in the country, and efforts have been made by the industry to act. The formation of PETCO Kenya and the work of supporting PET bottles recovery efforts through subsidies to collectors has been noted over the last two years.
Unfortunately, these efforts pose serious questions about your understanding of the magnitude of the problem of plastic pollution, your intentions, and your commitments to the Kenyan people.
Kenya has a very weak waste management infrastructure
First, Kenya’s waste infrastructure is inadequate and the uptake of desirable behavioural habits on proper disposal by citizens is very low. There are hardly any bins in many urban centres across the country and even where we have few segregated ones when the county trucks come for collection, everything is lumped together for transportation to the dumpsite. There are also no official waste drop-off points on our highways. This simply means there is widespread littering with most of this waste being washed away into our marine bodies when it rains.
Even at the household and establishment level, there is little effort to segregate waste. In more organized communities, waste is put in one bag for the garbage collectors to transport to the dumpsite. When you go to municipal markets where counties provide skips, the situation is the same. In informal settlements, waste is often illegally dumped with counties and community groups organizing irregular clean-ups with the waste also being taken to the commissioned dumpsites.
At the dumpsites is where material recovery is mostly done. At these dumps, plastics have to compete with other more valuable materials, meaning that many that appear not fit for recycling due to contamination eventually undergo open-air incineration.
Kenya Association of Manufacturers Chief Executive Officer, Ms. Phylis Wakiaga, best summarises Kenya’s waste infrastructure as follows:
“Currently, the waste management structures fail to address the magnitude of the waste problem in Kenya, both in rural and in urban areas. In the capital region of Nairobi, roughly a fifth of the solid waste of around 3,000 metric tons per day is recovered for recycling. Around four-fifths of the waste volumes are littered on the streets – eventually entering water bodies – burnt on site or disposed of at dumpsites. Existing dumpsites and landfills have by far exceeded their capacities to safely dispose of the waste volumes, thereby degrading the environment and adversely affecting human health. Fuelled by rapid urbanization and changing consumer patterns towards more packaged goods, the challenges are only going to increase.”
One would think that a responsible corporation like Coca-Cola would take cognisance of this breakdown in waste infrastructure before deciding to implement a business decision to use PET bottles knowing of the repercussions such a decision would have on the environment, livelihoods and the economy.
Has Coca-Cola hijacked an initiative that was meant to solve Kenya’s PET bottles crisis?
Secondly, the current pay per kilo for PET bottles given to collectors, even with the PETCO Kenya’s subsidy, is almost laughable. With a kilo or 32 bottles paying a paltry 10 Kenya Shillings on average, this means one has to collect 320 bottles (a whole pickup) to earn the equivalent of 1 US dollar and sometimes it takes days for them to be able to collect acceptable bottles that can be taken in by recyclers. Not many collectors can reach PETCO Kenya subsidy partners who are stationed in the capital city, relegating them to the position of the slaves of the system. We have reports of collectors in peripheral areas being stuck with as much as 2000 kilos of PET bottles after months and months of hard corporate slave labour. Let me put this into proper perspective. You need to hire a truck for 20,000 Kenya Shillings to transport these bottles from Naivasha to Nairobi, the same amount you would be paid by a PETCO Kenya subsidy partner. Besides, there are cross county fees for waste transportation across boundaries.
It will surprise many to note that there was a collection of PET bottles in this country before the formation of PETCO Kenya. What value addition has PETCO Kenya and the beverage industry added to this process? Or it’s a case of Coca-Cola continuing to piggyback on the existing system to score public relations points while spending millions of shillings in media campaigns to green-wash what is already a PET bottle recovery scandal? Money that could be used to do actual and honest work in communities to improve the livelihoods of collectors. Where are the other members of PETCO Kenya, and what is their role? Has Coca-Cola hijacked the process that was meant to solve the PET bottles problem in the country to push their own despicable global narrative on plastics? Is this then not a case of corporate conmanship and manipulation?
It is not lost to us that PETCO Kenya was formed as the industry’s reaction to the policy changes at the Ministry of Environment which had seen the banning of plastic bags in 2017 and which at one point was threatening to do the same on PET bottles.
At Clean Up Kenya we have been very active participants in these developments, having held numerous meetings with Kenya Association of Manufacturers, where on several occasions we have recommended the voluntary adoption of a return deposit scheme.
Human rights of Kenya’s PET bottles collectors have been violated
Thirdly, most of the PET bottles are recovered by poor women, children and the mentally unstable who are stationed at dumpsites without any regard for occupational safety for their health. If any of your senior managers have spent some time at the dumpsite, they will witness to the fact that there is always burning of garbage that releases very toxic fumes which together with methane gases are a recipe for serious respiratory problems. This is not to mention the other health hazards caused by dumpsites being breeding grounds for all forms of pathogens. In most cases, collectors also have to pay a fee to the cartels that run the dumpsites to be allowed to work. It is in these conditions that our poor women and children have to work, sometimes as forced labour and paid only in kind with garbage food. It is also not lost to anyone who lives in this country that way too common you will see street children on drugs (glue) and the mentally unstable scavenging garbage bins for PET bottles in our urban centres.
We, therefore, want to protest in the strongest terms possible that the way Coca-Cola is handling the plastic bottles crisis meets all the characteristics of corporate conmanship and slavery, and human rights and child labour violations. We are then left disgusted by your media campaigns highlighting the success of PETCO Kenya recycling initiatives while being openly blind to the human cost of your programs.
Coca-Cola’s commitments to the Kenyan people questioned
Finally, we are aware of the commitments you continue to make regarding this crisis and the other programs you continue to implement including those with schools. Sadly we regret to note that they are not well-meaning nor sincere.
We already know for example, that when compared to the products you sell in glass bottles which has a deposit for return, the cost of the empty PET bottle is passed on to the consumer which is up to 50 percent of the price of the products. How come then when the same bottle is taken to a recycler it fetches a negligible return? Why wouldn’t it be possible for a consumer to be able to take the uncontaminated bottle back to the shop and be given back the fair value of the bottle as you sell it? Instead of having the valueless bottle disposed of improperly only for a collector to go through a dehumanizing process of taking it to a third-party recycler. If you can have an elaborate system of collecting glass bottles and reimbursing consumers their deposits you sure can also do the same for PET bottles, can’t you? You just simply choose not to.
But we are empowering lives by incentivizing plastics – you continue to claim! By allowing the poor women to eke a living through the collection. In meetings we have held in the past with Kenya Association of Manufacturers, some of your collaborators have used statements like ‘we are incentivizing plastics’, that ‘taka ni mali’, that ‘plastics gives street families something meaningful to do’ that ‘plastic is gold’. With no due respect at all, this is pure hogwash. You cannot empower a life by paying them less than a dollar a day to work at a dumpsite with no occupational gear. Nor can you be empowering poor women by gathering them at a community centre in a slum to teach them how to differentiate between recyclable plastics and those that are not. Then to add icing to the cake, you claim to teach them management skills. Nor can plastic be the new gold whose current market price is 1 million more than that of plastic. Coca-Cola must be taking us for a bunch of fools by vomiting on our shoes!
It is on this backdrop that we launched the #BanTheBottleCampaign in July 2019 to campaign for voluntary implementation of a return deposit scheme for PET bottles by the industry or a total ban of the bottles in the jurisdiction of the Republic of Kenya.
We are deeply concerned by the inaction of your corporation to act sustainably, humanely and responsibly in the management of PET waste in Kenya. We strongly believe every PET bottle that ends at the doorstep of a recycler does so through the commission of a crime. In the coming days and months, we intend to increase visibility to the conmanship and industry manipulation, slavery, human rights and child labour violations your PET waste recovery programs continue to inflict on livelihoods, the environment and the economy across the country.
Let me conclude with the words of President Uhuru Kenyatta in Vancouver, Canada on 2019’s World Environment Day:
“Kenya is a trailblazing nation when it comes to environment protection and conservation. Two years ago we banned the use, manufacture and sale of environmentally harmful plastics, polythene bags and packaging materials. Building on this, today, I’m also announcing another ban of single-use plastics, including plastic bottles, straws, in all our protected areas, including national parks, beaches, forests and conservation areas effective 5th of June next year (2020). A sustainable environment is a guarantee to a healthy, better and productive society.”