By global standards, Kenya is generally not a wasteful society. Estimated in 2018 at 11 kilograms per person per year, the country’s waste generation is just over a third of the world average of 29 kilograms. In places like Nairobi, up to a fifth of that waste is plastic and relatively little of that is properly disposed of. However, only around 7 per cent is recycled. The rest, from bottles, caps, and food packaging to illegal plastic bags, finds its way to dumpsites, rivers and the ocean, or clogging up drains and littering the environment, into the stomachs of animals, birds and fish, and eventually into our own bodies.
With the problem set to get much worse—estimates are that by 2060, plastic generation will have nearly tripled—the question of what to do about it, and specifically who is responsible for cleaning it up, has become contentious. After all, pretty much all the plastic we have is produced by private industry. For example, a 2020 study shows the industrial sectors that produce the most plastic waste are food, packaging, textiles, and automotive tires. But the companies involved have long foisted the responsibility for the clean-up on their customers and on public entities.
Basically, the issue is framed in moral terms. If only people were more careful about where they disposed of their plastic bags and bottles, we wouldn’t have this problem. It is the end user who bears responsibility and thus needs to change. But this ignores that people don’t always have the resources, knowledge, choices and ability to safely dispose of plastics. On the other hand, the companies that saturate the market with convenient plastics can be among the largest, most powerful and wealthiest in the world.
According to the 2021 Brand Audit Report, a global audit of plastic trash conducted by the Break Free From Plastic movement, “fast moving consumer goods companies (FCMGs) such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Mondelēz, Danone, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, and Mars buy packaging from manufacturers supplied with plastic resin from fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron Phillips, Ineos, and Dow”. The audit involved over 11,000 volunteers cataloguing and counting the branding on plastic waste across 45 countries in six continents to help identify the companies that created it.
What responsibility do these global corporations, and their local partners and competitors, have for mitigating the harm their products cause? The idea behind the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is that product manufacturers and distributors are responsible for the entire lifecycle of products and packaging they bring to the market, even after the consumer is through with them. Introduced by Thomas Lindhqvist in Sweden in 1990, it moves the burden for dealing with waste away from individuals and society, to the businesses that profit from its production. Lindhqvist, who presented his research to Sweden’s Ministry of the Environment, theorized that companies responsible for their products would make them more recyclable and reusable, making the overall system less wasteful. In his doctoral thesis written a decade later, he listed models for EPR including holding manufacturers liable for the harm caused by their products, making them pay for—or physically responsible for—their collection, recycling and final disposal, and requiring them to provide information to consumers about the environmental damage they cause.
EPR seeks to make environmental costs visible. Lindhqvist calls it “a necessary condition for reflecting the essential life cycle costs in the price of the product” and alerting buyers to them. “With the exception of a few EPR systems, costs connected to waste collection, recycling, or final disposal, for instance, are not reflected in the price of the products. Consequently, these costs run the risk of being [overlooked] by the consumer when he is making the buying decision. Indeed, they are beyond the control of the consumer today and will not be influenced by his actions. Equally important, the manufacturer of the product may [overlook] such costs when designing the product”.
According to an article by Neil Seldman, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and director of the Waste to Wealth Initiative, not all EPR systems are born equal. Potentially good EPR programs can become bad because of poorly crafted implementation, especially when public oversight and control is handed over to business. As he notes, “corporate objectives for maximizing profits are not always compatible with achieving the highest environmental values,” offering examples when such programs have either gone awry or been deliberately sabotaged or undermined by corporate interests.
“With the exception of a few EPR systems, costs connected to waste collection, recycling, or final disposal, for instance, are not reflected in the price of the products.”
In Kenya, efforts to tackle plastic waste have faced fierce resistance from local manufacturers and distributors of plastic. In the mid-2000s, attempts to increase taxes on “flimsy” plastics bags (with a thickness of under 30 microns) were met with widespread protests by traders, as were similar efforts in 2011 by the National Environmental Management Authority and the Kenya Bureau of Standards to ban bags below 60 microns. The 2017 ban on plastic bags also faced stiff opposition, with the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) and several traders filing an unsuccessful petition at the High Court to block its implementation.
Since 2019, the government has sought to transition the country from a linear economy, where raw materials are collected and transformed into products that consumers use and discard as waste, to a circular economy, where products have an extended shelf life and are built so they can be repaired and recycled. The latest policy and legislative interventions in this regard are meant not only to strengthen the overall waste management landscape in the country but to also tackle the growing problem of plastic waste. These include draft regulations that seek to establish a mandatory EPR scheme whereby producers are legally responsible for the entirety of their product’s life cycle.
In a typical bid to head off regulation by the state, Kenyan corporates have set up voluntary EPR schemes such as PETCO, which identifies itself as “the Kenyan PET plastic industry’s joint effort to self-regulate post-consumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycling” and the Kenya Producer Responsibility Organisation (KEPRO) which was established 2021. However, the Talking Trash report published by the Changing Markets Foundation in 2020 describes PETCO as a ploy by “FCMGs such as Unilever and Coca-Cola . . . to ensure they can continue to sell single-use plastic products in the country” and to push responsibility and blame for pollution onto consumers by urging them to “#do1thing. Recycle”. The companies have fiercely resisted introduction of a mandatory Deposit Return Scheme for plastic beverage containers, where consumers leave a small deposit which they recover when they return the empty bottle or can, which was how Kenyans for a long time bought their drinks in the era of glass bottles. By far the world’s top polluter according to the Brand Audit Report, Coca-Cola has claimed the scheme would be inappropriate for the country despite a finding by KAM in its 2019 Kenya Plastic Action Plan that while not suitable for collection of a wide range of plastic products, DRS was nonetheless feasible for collection of beverage containers. It is important to note that KAM frames DRS as an incentive or reward scheme for consumers behaving in an environmentally decent manner rather than a way for polluters to fix the mess they have created.
The behaviour of local and global corporates validates Seldman’s point that businesses cannot be trusted to voluntarily implement EPR as the profit motive does not always align with environmental objectives. For example, according to the Talking Trash report, Coca-Cola “has a double incentive to stymie DRS—every refillable glass bottle that is displaced from the market is replaced by 25 single-use plastic bottles, and, in Kenya, the advent of single-use plastic bottles has outpaced local glass bottlers—which would also bottle beverages from local soda brands, stifling the company’s competition”.
Further buttressing the point, local activist organizations, such as Clean Up Kenya, have accused PETCO of “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”. In a May 2020 open letter, Clean Up Kenya described the pay per kilo for PET bottles—KSh10—offered to collectors as “almost laughable” and said PETCO had relegated collectors to “slaves of the system” having to gather a pick-up load of bottles just to earn KSh100, with reports of many “in peripheral areas being stuck with as much as 2000 kilos of PET bottles after months and months of hard corporate slave labour”.
KAM frames DRS as an incentive or reward scheme for consumers behaving in an environmentally decent manner rather than a way for polluters to fix the mess they have created.
Around the world, there is little evidence that voluntary targets by industry ever contribute to significant plastic clean up. Worse, it perpetuates the myth that the plastic problem can be addressed through recycling. Yet globally, as reported by The Intercept, “the value of recycled plastic is undercut by “virgin,” or newly produced plastic, which is cheap both because of the low cost of the subsidized fossil fuels used to make it and because its pricing doesn’t reflect the cost of cleaning it up”. Kenya is no exception. In a September 2020 interview, PETCO Country Manager Joyce Gachungi claimed the company had collected and recycled 7,700 metric tons of PET, or over 320 million bottles the previous year, and a further 3,500 metric tons in the first 9 months of 2020. It sounds impressive until one remembers that the industry generates 40,000 tonnes of new PET every year!
In the same interview, Gachungi admitted that PETCO was formed to head off a ban on PET. “When the government banned plastic bags they said that were also planning to ban PET bottles as well. . . [T]he government does not need to ban anything. All companies need to do is to join or form organizations such as PETCO that can be able to hold them accountable,” she said. On mandatory EPR legislation, she says such should only obligate companies “to join organizations that would make rules” which would leave the industry free to set its own targets and priorities.
The fact is, despite the flowery rhetoric, recycling and voluntary EPR schemes are not about companies living up to their responsibilities, but just ways to delay and frustrate the goal of a world free of plastic waste and to socialize the cost and responsibility for cleaning up existing plastic waste while continuing to profit from generating ever more plastic. In the end, only legislation forcing them to actually pick up after themselves rather than foisting the burden on consumers, and that moves towards a full and complete cessation of plastic production, will do.