The latest scandal involving leaked documents exposing the South African government’s intent to oppose a proposed global treaty of plastic bans is just the most recent example of how the plastic and petrochemical industry is coercing African governments to push their profit-making agenda.

Across Africa, plastic pollution remains a serious problem, devastating communities’ health, their environment and the ecosystem that millions depend on for livelihood. Its effects are harmful, blocking riverways and provoking flooding among other huge environmental discomforts. The United Nations says it is society’s most vulnerable that bear the brunt of the issue, and recent developments in the news expose who stands to benefit from it. 

In the past year, Greenpeace also uncovered a proposal to the United States (US) Trade Representative by the American Chemistry Council urging the US government to leverage on its Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations with Kenya to flood Africa with plastic. 

In a series of letters to the trade representative, the Council, which represents businesses such as the petrochemical industry, lobbied them to force the Kenyan government to abandon its anti-plastic legislation so that their members were able to export plastic and chemical fertilisers to the country. They further expressed that they would leverage existing trade agreements on the continent to market these harmful exports in Kenya’s immediate neighbours, as well as 27 other African countries. 

News of the American Chemistry Council’s underhanded attempts to influence the East African hub’s national policies was met with international outcry – and lawmakers from both the US and Kenya scrambled to extinguish the flames. This FTA could potentially lead to the first bilateral trade agreement between the US and a country in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the current process contains loopholes and conditions that allow for industry giants to skew the agreement in their favour. 

Kenya currently has some of the world’s strictest restrictions on plastic – contravention of which could result in imprisonment or hefty fines. While existing laws have had a substantial impact on the improvement of the environment, there is still room for improvement, as single-use plastic items such as bottles still plague its waterways. 

Companies such as Coca-Cola capitalise on African governments’ inability to provide safe drinking water through supplying disposable bottled water, and have for many years placed as the top polluter in brand audits on the continent – where three of the world’s top eleven countries contributing to oceans plastic are. 

The beverage giant is already piloting controversial recycling schemes in South Africa and Kenya. It has shifted toward recyclable packaging by a further 3%, which signals a real risk of existing sustainable reuse glass bottle models being phased out. They also just conveniently announced the listing of their plastic bottling operation on the Johannesburg Stock exchange – after the South African government adopted Extended Producer Regulations which favour recycling. 

While there has been a heightened awareness and outrage toward Western governments who seek to exploit the Global South through unfair diplomacy and, even, overt dumping of plastic waste and products, the exploits of Africa’s local plastic and petrochemical industries goes unchecked – they operate freely within the benefit of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement that would allow the Council access to 28 countries. 

Oil and gas companies like one of Africa’s biggest polluters, Sasol, are rapidly expanding exploration along the continent’s Eastern and Western coasts – some of which are planning to drill in protected areas and World Heritage sites such as the Okavango Delta. According to its website, Sasol already pushes sales of its polymers throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, and markets them in a total of 75 countries globally.  

It is no surprise then that the South African government continues to ignore calls for single-use plastic bans, particularly since current president Cyril Ramaphosa’s focus remains on re-industrialisation and capital investments into South Africa to encourage economic growth and job creation. This, despite the fact that 35 other African countries have already taken steps to phase out plastic, due to its harmful impact on the environment. 

The influence of the Ramaphosa administration’s re-industrialisation agenda is clear when considering leaked confidential documents from the SA environment department, indicating an internal proposal that they reject the proposed global treaty on plastic. This is despite being the third largest polluter in Africa and eleventh largest in the world. 

The South African government pushes forward with its agenda, and conveniently overlooks on-going calls for the phase out of single-use plastic. It remains steadfast in its plans to ramp up recycling, with hefty investment into new recycling plants, and approval processes for plastic waste imports; promising a circular economy for plastics, under the guise of creating more jobs as South Africa’s unemployment crisis deepens. 

However, these plastic industry-led recycling schemes are a false solution to both the growing plastic and unemployment crises. If South Africa continues with its plans to prioritise the plastic industry’s agenda, it will incentivise corporates like Coca-Cola to abandon existing sustainable distribution models for supposedly more profitable plastic-based ones. 

In doing so, they will take food out of the mouths of the unemployed waste pickers which they claim to be empowering – since the role of waste pickers in the recycling economy will be taken over by corporations that are already investing heavily in recycling infrastructure – the complete opposite of what they are supposedly hoping to achieve.  

There is a declining demand for plastic across the continent, and around the world, and our governments should not be the scapegoat for petrochemicals, a dying industry not worth the investment. 
This analysis was originally published by Daily Maverick on 6 July 2021.

Angelo C Louw is a Johannesburg-based social justice activist and communicator currently acting as Greenpeace Africa’s Digital Mobilisation Officer and Pan-African Plastic Project Lead. 

Fredrick Njehu is a Nairobi-based political analyst who is currently employed as Greenpeace Africa’s Kenyan team’s Senior Political Adviser. 

Niven Reddy is the Durban-based African Regional Coordinator both at Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and #breakfreefromplastic. He is also the Campaign Research and Technical Support Manager at groundWork

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