On April 19, 2020, journalist Sharon Lerner published an article in The Intercept investigating the impact the buildup of plastic waste is having on Africa and summarizing recent stakeholder efforts to clean up the global pollution. The piece begins by following impoverished recyclers in Kenya and Ethiopia and examining the weakening microeconomies there based on the collection and trading of plastic waste from large landfills. Lerner investigates the actions (or lack thereof) that have been taken by local governments, beverage corporations, and civil society organizations to address the local problems.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on single-use plastic production were also considered. “While environmental outrage has constrained markets in many wealthier nations and, after the coronavirus pandemic, will likely cut further into the acceptability of plastics there, the use of plastic and products packaged in it is still growing quickly throughout Africa and elsewhere in the developing world,” Lerner writes. Following China’s refusal to accept any further waste plastic from western countries (FPF reported), “the US, Australia, and many European nations have been exporting their waste to other countries that are far less able to deal with it.” Specifically, the article reports that in 2019 the US exported 1.5 billion pounds of plastic waste to 95 different countries including Kenya, Ghana, Malaysia, Thailand, and Mexico. Some of the countries have started sending back the waste they receive.

Taking a look at the global political situation, the article provides an overview of discussions taking place in the most developed countries about the issue, including proposed bills in the US (FPF reported) and the recent increase in industry requests to postpone or remove bans on single-use plastics due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the US (FPF reported) and Europe (FPF reported). International beverage company Coca-Cola has been singled out by African civil society organizations for a lack of action on the issue and also for making promises to collect all of the waste bottles from its products in Western Europe but failing to mention the issues faced by poorer countries.

Despite the adoption of plastic waste into the Basel Convention in May 2019 (FPF reported) that places stricter controls on transporting plastic waste across borders, Jim Puckett from the civil society organization Basel Action Network still describes the global waste trade and building tensions around the issue as “a balloon that’s going to explode.” He explained that “all the [waste] brokers are trying to find the next country that’s going to take this stuff. We’re talking about massive amounts of waste, just mountains and mountains of material.” The push back in these countries will come “once people start to see and smell it and realize it’s being burned in their backyards, they say no way.”

Some stakeholders clearly believe we are now in the middle of a systematic decline of the plastics industry. The article quotes Carroll Muffet from the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), which recently published a report outlining this perspective. Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she argues that “industry had already recognized that its assumptions about how plastic would grow were wildly optimistic.” The pandemic has led to delays in the construction of new plastics plants, an increase in bankruptcies among fracking companies, and a drastic drop in fossil fuel production and prices. She said, “will [the plastics industry] exploit [COVID-19] to pitch more expansion under the guise of consumer hygiene? Certainly. But will that be enough to offset the declining acceptance of plastic combined with the instability of the entire petroleum sector? I don’t think so.”

Read more

Sharon Lerner (April 19, 2020). “Africa’s Exploding Plastic Nightmare.” The Intercept

CIEL (April 16, 2020). “Pandemic Crisis, Systemic Decline: New Report Warns Oil, Gas and Plastic Industries are an Unfillable Sinkhole for Recovery Funds.”

Tom Newmaster (April 23, 2020). “How COVID-19 brought plastics back from the dead.” Food Dive