Oil group lobbying Trump administration, plastics across Africa

18 mins read
NAIROBI, KENYA - MARCH 14: Thousands of plastic bottles lay on the ground at the Dandora rubbish dump on March 14, 2018 in Nairobi, Kenya. The Dandora landfield is located 8 Kilometer east of the city center of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. Every day, more than 2.000 metric tonnes of waste are dumped on this site. More than 3000 pickers work day by day at the sprawling 30-acre rubbish dump. (Photo by Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images)

A lobby group representing oil and chemical companies, including Shell, Exxon, Total, DuPont and Dow, has been pushing the Trump administration during the pandemic to use a US-Kenya trade deal to expand the plastic and chemical industry across Africa.

Documents obtained by Unearthed show the same lobby group – and the US recycling industry – also lobbied against changes to an international agreement that puts new limits on plastic waste entering low- and middle-income countries.

Several of the companies in the American Chemistry Council (ACC) – including Shell, Exxon and Total but not BP – were the founders of a $1bn initiative that pledges to create “a world free of plastic waste”.

In public letters to top officials at the US Trade Representative and US International Trade Commission, the ACC writes: “Kenya could serve in the future as a hub for supplying U.S.-made chemicals and plastics to other markets in Africa through this trade agreement.”

The letters also call for the lifting of limits on the waste trade, a move which experts say amounts to an attempt to legally circumvent the new rules on plastic waste, rules which – the documents reveal – the firms had also vigorously opposed.

Kenyan environmentalists said the proposals would mean that “Kenya will become a dump site for plastic waste”.

US Democratic Senator Tom Udall, who last year introduced legislation to tackle the plastic waste crisis accused the companies of “double dealing.”

He told Unearthed: “It is outrageous that petrochemical and plastic industries claim the solution to our mounting plastic waste crisis is to produce more disposable plastic. These same companies and corporations then point the finger at developing nations for the plastic waste showing up in our oceans. This double-dealing makes clear what the true source of our plastic waste crisis is: companies and corporations off-shoring their responsibilities to make billions of dollars… Requiring these companies to take responsibility for their excessive waste and pollution is the only way we will tackle our colossal plastic waste problem.

The ACC is a major trade association for chemical companies, including Dow and DuPont, as well as the petrochemical arms of some of the oil majors. Although BP is a member, it does not produce any plastics and last month sold off its petrochemicals business to Ineos. A spokesperson told Unearthed that their work with the ACC focuses on Castrol lubricants, which are used in the automotive industry.

Basel Convention

Following public outcry about plastic waste, in May last year, new rules agreed under a global treaty called the Basel Convention mean that as of 2021, almost all countries outside the OECD will be prohibited from trading mixed, contaminated or unrecyclable plastic with the US, because it is one of the few countries not party to the Convention.

The OECD has not yet ruled on whether it will accept the new plastic waste rulings, following objections from the US. The Basel Convention provides a limited exception which would allow continued trade between the US and the 37 member countries of the OECD, but only if those countries adopt standards on plastic waste as strong as those in the Convention.

The 187 countries that are part of the treaty will have to partake in a procedure to obtain prior informed consent from importing countries, a procedure which requires checks on environmental processing facilities.

Unpublished documents obtained by Unearthed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that the oil and chemical industry lobby group wrote to the Secretariat of the Basel Convention in March 2019.

It objected to the new rules on the basis that they would create a “regulatory burden”, lead to shipping delays, logistical issues and increased costs. It forwarded its letter to the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) two weeks later, requesting a meeting to discuss its concerns.

The documents also reveal that the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) – a major trade association representing the US recycling industry – lobbied against the new rules on the basis that they could severely limit US exports, discourage legitimate trade and exacerbate marine litter by preventing plastic from reaching recycling facilities.

“In principle, we would prefer the proposals not be adopted and maintain the status quo,” they wrote in an email sent to USTR on 3 April 2019.

A spokesperson from the ACC told Unearthed the basis of their concerns regarding the new Basel restrictions was that they “could very well limit the ability of African and other developing countries to properly manage plastic waste,” because they will restrict their capacity to export materials to other countries.

ISRI echoed these concerns. A spokesperson told Unearthed that the new restrictions “will prevent countries that lack materials management infrastructure – such as for collection, sorting and recycling – from sending what they can collect to countries that do have recycling and disposal capacity… Without this outlet for developing countries, ISRI worries that an already bad situation will become much worse.”

According to ISRI, in 2018 the US imported more than 92,000 metric tons of plastic waste from non-OECD countries.

However, in the first six months of that year, US exports to China, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam alone – all countries outside the OECD – totalled 480,432 tons. These exports are five times the US imports in half the time.

The Trump administration backed the industry position – opposing the implementation of the new rules at the OECD. US opposition has led to concerns over whether the country will seek ways around the changes.

Dr. Innocent Nnorom, an associate professor in environmental chemistry at Abia State university in Nigeria, who co-authored a recent inventory of plastic consumption in Africa, told Unearthed: “Most countries in Africa do not have the recycling infrastructure for managing increasing plastic waste.

“It appears that loopholes are being sought to continue the trade in plastic waste. Once in Africa, the emerging free trade routes could be used to facilitate transboundary movements to other African countries. The African Union and its member states should be on the look-out.”

Demand for petrochemicals is expected to rocket in coming decades, with companies expected to be looking to low- and middle-income countries to expand the market. Plastic is already the US’ biggest export to Kenya, with sales totalling $58m in 2019.

In their letters to the Trump administration regarding the US-Kenya FTA earlier this year, the ACC called for it to “prohibit imposition of domestic limits on production or consumption of chemicals and plastic and restrictions on cross-boundary trade of materials and feedstocks”. Feedstocks could include plastic waste for recycling.

They added that the US and Kenya should “enable trade in waste for the purposes of sound management and recycling consistent with relevant international commitments”.

Even so, David Azoulay, an attorney and director of the environmental health programme at the Center for International Environmental Law told Unearthed: “The suggestion to use this potential agreement to preempt any national limitation on plastic production and consumption is a clear indication of the ACC’s objective to leverage such a trade agreement to circumvent global efforts to curb plastic production and use, as well as newly adopted provisions from the Basel Convention to better control the global plastic waste trade.”

Jim Puckett, executive director of the NGO Basel Action Network commented that it would also contradict the Bamako Convention, a separate treaty in Africa.

“The effort to enlarge trade in waste and harmful chemicals in between the US and Kenya is a rather insidious effort that, if taken across Africa would go head to head against Africa’s Bamako Convention – a treaty which prohibits virtually all plastic waste imports into Africa as well as the import of many hazardous chemicals,” he told Unearthed.


Environmentalists are concerned the deal could also undermine national efforts to limit plastic consumption, including new rules on plastic bags.

Sub-Saharan Africa is thought to lead the world on plastic bag laws, according to reports, with 34 countries adopting taxes or bans.

Dorothy Otieno, the plastics programme co-ordinator at the Centre for Environment, Justice and Development (CEJAD) in Kenya, told Unearthed that this trade deal could threaten the momentum and change created by these efforts.

“As a country we have made strides to reduce the plastics that are used here, and which end up as waste – there is a ban on use and manufacture of carrier bags and recently a ban on plastic in protected areas – so this trade deal would diminish what we have achieved as a country.”

But Kenyan politicians and trade groups said such fears will be addressed. Negotiations began several weeks ago, but have recently stalled due to coronavirus concerns.

Cornelly Serum, an MP for the ruling Jubilee Party and member of the Trade and Industry Parliamentary Committee, told Unearthed: “Fears that under the trade deal use of plastics might be reintroduced into the country are valid… Trade associations planning to expand their businesses in Africa – and mainly in Kenya – are welcome but cannot use the deal to introduce materials that have so far been banned and as a parliament we will not allow any protocols likely to ruin our economy.”

Carol Karuga, CEO of broad-based lobby group the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, added: “It does not augur well to ban use of plastics materials in the economy and later reintroduce the same through a trade deal… The deal before it is finally agreed will have to be checked at all levels.”

Otieno also expressed concerns about the impact of more waste. “There would be an increase in waste – some will be reused and recycled but the majority will end up in dump sites. We will end up in a situation where Kenya will become a dump site for plastic waste,” she said.

“It clogs our waterways and our drainage systems and leads to flooding. We also see the effect of pollution from the burning of plastics – it produces dioxins and furans that lead to respiratory diseases… Somebody can burn these wastes right next to your house and suffer the impacts. We also see the aesthetic value of our towns being reduced because of plastics.”

Last year, some of the ACC companies – including Shell, Exxon and BASF – alongside major consumer goods and waste management companies launched the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), committing $1bn, in part to finance waste management projects to clean up and prevent plastic waste in Africa and Asia.

In the public letters, the ACC wrote that: “There is a global need to support infrastructure development to collect, sort, recycle, and process used plastics, particularly in developing countries such as Kenya.

“Such infrastructure will create opportunities for trade and investment and help keep used plastics out of the environment, thereby reducing marine litter… The U.S. and Kenya can play a strong role together in promoting innovative circular economy solutions in East Africa that enable universal access to better waste management capacity and for used plastics in all countries.”

The ACC argued in the documents obtained through FOIA that such infrastructure will require the continuation of the plastic waste trade and that the new rules could “slow efforts to address the marine litter challenge” because a circular economy requires ample feedstock.

“Increased barriers on global plastics trade will lead to increased burdens on local plastic waste management, regardless of whether the sourcing country has adequate domestic recycling infrastructure,” they argued.

A spokesperson from the ACC told Unearthed that their concerns were regarding how the restrictions could impede exports from low- and middle-income countries to those with more infrastructure capacity.

The correspondence with the US government references both exports and imports.

The documents also suggest that the US government supported the AEPW. An official at USTR accepted an invitation from the ACC to an event on the alliance in April 2019, responding that “what you are doing with the Alliance is an important counter-narrative”.

A spokesperson from Shell told Unearthed: “Shell companies participate in industry associations for many reasons. By nature they are consensus-based organisations, but their positions don’t necessarily reflect the same views as individual members. ACC is one of a handful of US-based trade organizations that allows Shell to exchange industry best practices around a range of issues, including safety, climate change, and the sustainable use, disposal and recycling of the products we collectively produce.”

Total referred us to their report on climate change, which states that Total is “partially aligned” with the ACC’s position on climate, but which makes no mention of plastics.

Exxon, DuPont, Dow and BASF referred us to the ACC for comment. The US International Trade Commission, which is an independent federal agency, told us it does not participate in trade negotiations and referred us to USTR for comment. USTR has not responded to our request.


Charlene is a Bay Area journalist who hails from the small community of Fresno. Drawing from her experience writing for her college paper, Charlene continues to advocate for free press and local journalism. She also volunteers in all the beach cleanups she can because she loves the water.