US continues to engage in plastic colonialism against the world’s poor

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The United States is engaged in ‘plastic colonialism’ by disregarding international environmental treaties and exporting plastic waste to poor countries, a New York Times investigation reveals.

These revelations comes after the same publication exposed a plot by American Petro corporations to flood Africa with plastics by lobbying their government to enter a favorable trade treaty with Kenya.

Plastic colonialism is a term that was coined by Betterman Simidi (Clean Up Kenya Founder and Patron) to describe how western corporations have different rule-books on how they handle their plastic footprints for richer and poorer countries.

An example of this systemic plastic colonialism is employed by corporations such as Coca-Cola, which continue to undermine progressive legislation in tackling plastic waste crisis in poor countries. One way they do this is to ‘capture’ industry efforts to address the problem by offering funding and fake expertise with the aim of weakening initiatives such as the extended producer responsibility schemes.

But this recent revelation of waste exportation shows how the United States is hell-bent to undermine international environmental law.

In 2019, the global community made amendments to the Basel Convention by placing plastic waste among illicit materials that need trans-boundary regulation. Since then, many countries have ratified the treaty but the United States has not.

According to data accessed by the New York Times investigation, over 48 million tons of plastic waste were exported by the US in January 2021, the month that the amendments on plastics came into force. Most of this waste ends in countries in Southeast Asia. The waste would have gone to China but the country banned importation in 2018. China alleged that most of the waste was contaminated for effective recycling and they did not want to be the world’s garbage dump. It is the same waste that the US now exports to Indonesia and Vietnam, among other countries. In Indonesia, for example, the Citarum River is the most polluted globally, particularly with plastics.

For the exportation of plastic waste to stop from the United States, Congress will have to ratify the amendments to the Basel Convention. This is not something that seems very high on the agenda of President Joe Biden, whose party now controls the house. This is perhaps the first test of his administration environmental credentials, having recently rejoined the Paris Agreement.

UN Environment recently released a report titled Making Peace with Nature which puts pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change at the heart of an environmental threat to mankind. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has indicated the three threats have to be addressed as one to save humanity and the planet. It is, therefore, crucial for the United States to address this issue of plastic colonialism immediately by ratifying the amendments to the Basel Convention as an immediate gesture to its commitment to addressing the global environmental emergency.


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.