In late 2019, Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) launched the Kenya Plastic Action Plan with much pomp and fanfare at a Nairobi City hotel. This plan came after a research commissioned by KAM involved local and international consultants. The research looked at the country’s plastic value chain and its regulatory frameworks, with the purpose of proposing an appropriate plastic waste management regime.
In the 156 page plan, KAM makes several institutional, regulatory and financial proposals.
At the core of this proposal is the establishment of one mandatory centre for post-consumer plastic management through an industry-led Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO).
This centre would mobilize resources from the plastic sector in a form of ‘polluter pays principle tax’ as well as receive additional funds from other entities, including the government, and other external bodies to help manage a plastic recovery and recycling infrastructure.
Of this plan, while noting it as groundbreaking, Sachen Gudka, KAM Chairman, further stated that it is, ‘a catalyst for the establishment of more long-term, progressive and revolutionary measures to tackle waste management holistically.’
Unfortunately, since the publication of this plan, there has been no critical review from both the media and civil society for its applicability.
Background and shifting public sentiments on plastics
Reading the plan and observing the developments of plastics management in the country in the last few years, one cannot fail to see that KAM’s plan is an acknowledgement to a quickly evolving public policy environment and shifting public sentiments on the problem of plastic waste.
In 2017, Kenya implemented one of the strictest bans globally on single-use plastic carry bags.
It goes without saying that KAM vehemently resisted this ban.
“The problem is not plastic bags, but consumer behaviour,” Ms. Phyllis Wakiaga, the association’s chief was quoted as saying.
Shortly afterwards, the association lodged a lawsuit at the Kenya High Court against the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), the Attorney General and by extension against the people of Kenya.
Following several developments in 2018 around the possible banning of PET bottles, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced on 2019 World Environment Day that another ban on all single-use plastics in Kenya’s protected areas would take effect from June 2020.
This was followed in 2020 with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry announcing a collection of memoranda on Extended Producer Responsibility Regulations, which among others, will cover plastics.
It is quite possible that KAM developed the Kenya Plastic Action Plan as part of its memoranda and may very well be banking on the hope that when the Government of Kenya publishes an EPR bill, it will be favourable to KAM institutional and financial strategy on the management of post user plastics.
Such an arrangement will see KAM strengthen PETCO Kenya, which is the industry’s de facto Producer Responsibility Organization for plastics. This is despite the existence of Clean Green Kenya, another PRO, which carters for another category of members and has a legitimate cause. Such a scenario is quite problematic.
The relationship of Coca-Cola and PETCO Kenya scrutinized
To date, PETCO Kenya is housed under the roof of one member of KAM and an interested party, Coca-Cola, and continues to receive significant funding and shadowing from the company.
Coca-Cola’s position on plastics is well known. The corporation has a long history of resisting proposals to minimize widespread use of PET bottles worldwide particularly in the global South where environmental laws and waste management infrastructure remain weak. They also continue to sponsor greenwashing initiatives across the world that does little to solve the plastics pandemic.
For the avoidance of doubt, Coca-Cola has been found to be the face of plastic pollution in many global audits. The Intercept has for example documented in the last year some elaborate schemes used by the corporation to resist any movement on this problem globally.
By proposing PETCO Kenya to KAM, by providing most of the funding to the entity and by housing it, Coca-Cola has simply hijacked the industry’s voluntary EPR process on plastics. With these developments, there are some who see a real danger in Coca-Cola’s position being anchored into Kenya’s EPR law.
The operations of PETCO Kenya are increasingly also coming under immense scrutiny from human rights practitioners. The entity joyrides on an existing nationwide infrastructure of informal waste pickers, offering them a negligible subsidy while doing little to improve the circumstances under which these workers operate. Many of the pickers are poor women and children who rummage dumpsites to do an environmental good for which PETCO Kenya and Coca-Cola take credit.
This relationship with informal pickers and dumpsite workers is simply immoral and raises momentous issues on the workings of KAM, PETCO Kenya and their members.
Should there be any changes that would force informal waste pickers to abandon their job, for example, a sustained drop in prices of crude oil resulting in global PET prices plummeting, the EPR scheme as is currently run by PETCO Kenya will simply collapse.
PETCO Kenya and her members do not also own any recovery or recycling infrastructure and have shown no plans to improve existing systems. Thus, just like with the waste pickers, PETCO Kenya continues to piggyback the system.
The Kenya Plastic Action Plan report seems to take cognizance of threats from corporations interests by suggesting that the PRO be an independent Non-Governmental Organization. This is only possible through a robust Extended Producer Responsibility law.
To make it even harder for the industry to pursue a partisan ideology, perhaps the merits of a Producer Responsibility Organization that is a quasi-government agency, with a broad-based board with members coming from key stakeholders such as government, industry and the civil society, needs to be considered.
The Kenya Plastic Action Plan report ignores Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) as one solution
It is quite telling that the Kenya Plastic Action Plan report fails to consider Deposit Return Schemes as one of the solutions for the management of some aspects of plastics such as PET bottles which are mostly used for carbonated and water drinks. These plastics are lightweight, widely used and contributes significantly to the growing problem of plastic waste.
In a DRS system, just like with glass bottles for beers and sodas locally, consumers will be required to give retailers a ‘cash deposit’ which is given back when the bottle is returned. Norway, Germany and Sweden have a recycling rate of over 95 per cent for PET bottles thanks to this system. Many other countries such as Australia, Japan and eleven other members of the European Union have implemented DRS as part of their plastic management mix.
We are then left to speculate that Coca-Cola which initially resisted such proposals in Australia and United Kingdom through lobbying and taking legal actions, and which contributed to the Kenya Plastic Action Plan, had its way in deciding the direction of the plan.
An example of this is quite evident on page 38 of the report, when Coca-Cola is singled out for their ‘good work’.
A bottler of carbonated drinks in Kenya is currently harmonizing its product design by shifting to clear PET and utilizing PET labels. This is exemplary for a producer’s action to create more value for recyclers.
Greater efforts have thus been advanced in the report pointing to how other nations have implemented their plastic actions through setting up of national PROs while discussions on implementing a DRS regime have been conveniently muted.
The report even has tables from across the world comparing what each member of the PRO is required to pay for each kilo of plastics, imported or deployed. Great effort has also been taken to segment those in the local plastics sector in preparation for the implementation of a mandatory collection of the ‘polluter pay tax’ through the established PRO.
There is no reason why a Producer Responsibility Organisation can’t work with a Deposit Return Scheme
A Deposit Return Scheme for certain types of plastics is the only sure way to reduce the amounts of plastics in the Kenyan environment and a practical model to the circular economy principle.
We are aware that the industry would like to have a solution that also ensures economic activities around recycling are not disrupted. Deposit schemes will provide many economic activities since the plastics will still have to be processed and transported.
Organizations such as Mr. Green stand to gain considerably with access to more material and can absorb the informal waste collectors into their workforce. Informal collection points for plastics can also be converted into DRS partners, servicing the many shops in communities which would be the first contact for those returning bottles for deposits. The subsidy funds manufacturers contribute to PETCO Kenya together with the funds recyclers use to buy PETs would instead be used to run the system, keeping the ‘value of the deposit’ untouched.
If you give consumers a tangible incentive to recycle, there is no reason why they can’t act responsibly. And with the use of technology and standardizations, we can ensure the system is foolproof. As a ‘trailblazing’ nation, this can add to Kenya’s environment protection credentials in the global South.
Is it farfetched to venture then, that KAM is purposefully blind to the DRS system because they have become hostage to Coca-Cola’s shameful global agenda on plastics?
Finally, the other problem with the Kenya Plastic Action Plan are the numbers
The plan predicts a plastic recovery and recycling regime that would grow by 6% annually to 30% by 2030. It seems that KAM does not care where 70% of plastics will end up by 2030. If their plan is ‘groundbreaking’ as its Chairman claims, then we would have expected it to at least mirror Coca-Cola’s media campaigns of a #WorldWithoutWaste by 2030, where the corporation projects that it will collect every bottle from the environment for every single one they produce.
Many times when we speak in percentages, it is easy to miss the point. In 2019, PETCO Kenya reported that 6,000 Metric tons of plastics had been recovered accounting for 30% of all PET waste. This means that over 20,000 tons were either burned in the open or were conveyed into our water bodies or nobody cares where they are. That is a mind-boggling 20 million kilos or 600 million PET bottles every year left in the environment which will make several billions by 2030! Already, lakes like Naivasha which have no known outlets have a growing depository of bottles at their sediment.
With these numbers, does the Kenya Plastic Action Plan really sound like a plan? The answer is a big no!
This, therefore, makes the following words from Mr Sachen Gudka, the Chairman of Kenya Association of Manufacturers run hollow.
“I speak for the Association in saying that we are committed, and are at the forefront of driving the establishment of a circular economy, towards sustainably managing waste, and conserving and restoring our environment.”