October 01, 2020

NEWS ON PLASTIC: Udall, Merkley, Lowenthal, Cohen, Blumenauer, Lead 62 Bipartisan Members of Congress Urging Trump Administration to Ensure Future Trade Agreement with Kenya Doesn’t Undermine Plastic Waste Mitigation Efforts

Recent reports indicate that chemical makers and fossil fuel companies are lobbying to influence trade agreement with Kenya and weaken plastic limits

The U.S. should champion equitable trade agreements that promote sustainable jobs and protect our global environment

Forcing developing countries to accept more U.S. waste would benefit private corporations’ bottom lines at the expense of public health and the environment

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and U.S. Representatives Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) led a bipartisan group of 62 lawmakers from the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives calling on President Trump to take a leadership role on plastic pollution by opposing the export of more plastic waste to Kenya and supporting Kenya’s actions to curb the production of wasteful single-use products. 

The letter follows reports in the New York Times and Unearthed highlighting industry efforts to influence trade negotiations between the United States and Kenya by opposing limits on production or consumption of chemicals and plastic, and restrictions on cross-boundary trade of materials, feedstocks, and wastes. The lawmakers are urging the president and the U.S. Trade Representative not to undermine existing or planned policies by Kenya to reduce wasteful single-use plastic products or pressure Kenya to accept plastic waste imports.

“In 2019, the United States exported more than 1 billion pounds of plastic waste to 96 countries, including Kenya. While many Americans believe they are recycling their plastic when they sort it at home for collection, this plastic often ends up as waste in developing countries with poor waste management capabilities and ultimately finds its way into rivers, oceans, and landscapes,” wrote the lawmakers in a letter to President Trump. “Indeed, even countries with excellent waste management systems cannot keep up with the ever-increasing amounts of plastic that is impossible to recycle. As a result, this plastic waste is often buried in landfills, set on fire in open lots, or lost to the ocean and the environment, while many in industry blame these developing countries for the pollution that is found in rivers and oceans.” 

Confronting a massive plastic pollution problem, Kenya passed a ban on single-use plastic bags in 2017 and recently moved to prohibit all single-use plastic items in protected areas. In May of last year, Kenya joined 187 countries to take a major step to limit the flow of plastic waste to developing countries under the Basel Convention. Additionally, more than 100 countries have expressed support for a new global agreement to address the full life-cycle of plastics. The United States is not a party of the Basel Convention and has not voiced support for a global agreement on plastic. 

“The United States has not only failed to be a leader, but instead is actively working against progress on tackling this pollution. The United States’ solution to the plastic pollution crisis cannot be to simply open more markets abroad for plastic products and find destinations to send increasing amounts of plastic waste. This is totally at odds with the global policy solution to prevent plastic pollution—not to mention climate change,” the lawmakers continued.   

“The United States should make no attempts to undermine Kenya’s, or any other developing nations, domestic laws or regional agreements developed to meaningfully protect the health and environment of its people, such as bans on plastic bags and restrictions on single-use plastics. The United States should publicly affirm this position and begin a process of joining with other countries to proactively address plastic pollution internationally as well as at home,” the lawmakers concluded. 

“Our planet is overflowing with plastic pollution. Instead of turning off the tap, we're intentionally flooding our neighbors and, in some cases, blaming them for a problem we've started. Until we reduce the amount of disposable plastic we produce, we won't fix our plastic problem,” said Alex Truelove, Zero Waste Director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

“For America to deal with its own monumental plastic waste problem by pushing it on other countries — countries that have made the progress we should have made decades ago — is simply inexcusable. It's time we held the U.S. plastics industry accountable for its mess and stop the plastic pollution crisis at the source,” said Oceana plastics campaign director Christy Leavitt. “Thank you, Senators Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley, Reps. Alan Lowenthal and Steve Cohen, and Chairman Earl Blumenauer, for leading the opposition to this plan, and thank you to the policy-makers who join them in their refusal to trash another country for our own convenience.”

Udall, Lowenthal and Merkley are the authors of the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, comprehensive legislation to require big corporations to take responsibility for the plastic waste they produce and would stop the export of plastic waste from the U.S. to developing countries.

Also signing the letter in the Senate are U.S. Senators Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

The letter was also signed by U.S. Representatives Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), Mike Quigley (D-Ill), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Emanuel Cleaver, III (D-Mo.), Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), Henry C. "Hank" Johnson, Jr. (D-Ga.), Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Sharice L. Davids (D-Kansas), Julia Brownley (D-Calif.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Ted W. Lieu (D-Calif.), Donald S. Beyer Jr. (D-Va.), Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), Jesús G. “Chuy” García (D-Ill.), Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Suzan Delbene (D-Wash.), Michael F.Q. San Nicolas (D-Guam), Thomas R. Suozzi (D-N.Y.), Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Donna E. Shalala (D-Fla.), David E. Price (D-N.C.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and John B. Larson (D-Conn.).

The full letter can be found below and HERE.

Dear Mr. President:

As you negotiate a trade deal between the United States and Kenya, we write to express our strong opposition to efforts to weaken Kenya’s restrictions on importation or consumption of single-use plastic and other products responsible for plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is a major global problem. Of the estimated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced in the past 60 years, 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste and much of that has polluted our natural environment leading to major blights on the environment, economies, and health of countries around the world.

Every year, enough plastic – about 8 million tons – escapes into the ocean that five grocery bags full of plastic trash would fit on every foot of coastline around the globe. In addition to ocean pollution, plastic is contaminating every area of the world, including miles above us in the form of micro-plastic pollution found in raindrops that fall in areas as remote as Rocky Mountain National Park. With nearly 400 million tons of plastic produced globally each year and failed policies to reclaim and recycle that plastic, we are creating suffocating amounts of plastic that are harming our environment, our health, and our budgets.

In Kenya, plastic pollution has had a devastating impact on their health, environment, and economy. Plastic bag pollution has led to major issues, such as clogged drainage systems that contributed to mass flooding in rainy seasons. A study supported by the National Environmental Management Agency in 2018 found that more than 50% of cattle near urban areas in Kenya had plastic bags in their stomachs. Plastic beverage bottles and other plastic containers are ubiquitous in landscapes, residential areas, rivers, and beaches.

Some of this pollution can be attributed to plastic that was exported from the United States. In 2019, the United States exported more than 1 billion pounds of plastic waste to 96 countries, including Kenya. While many Americans believe they are recycling their plastic when they sort it at home for collection, this plastic often ends up as waste in developing countries with poor waste management capabilities and ultimately finds its way into rivers, oceans, and landscapes. Indeed, even countries with excellent waste management systems cannot keep up with the ever-increasing amounts of plastic that is impossible to recycle.

As a result, this plastic waste is often buried in landfills, set on fire in open lots, or lost to the ocean and the environment, while many in industry blame these developing countries for the pollution that is found in rivers and oceans. This is a crisis that has captured the attention of the global community. In May of last year, 187 countries took a major step to limit the flow of plastic waste to developing countries under the Basel Convention. Additionally, more than 100 countries have expressed support for a new global agreement to address the full life-cycle of plastics.

In both cases, the United States has not only failed to be a leader, but instead is actively working against progress on tackling this pollution. The United States’ solution to the plastic pollution crisis cannot be to simply open more markets abroad for plastic products and find destinations to send increasing amounts of plastic waste. This is totally at odds with the global policy solution to prevent plastic pollution—not to mention climate change.

Kenya’s own response to mounting plastic pollution was to take action to restrict plastic bags in 2017 and recently to restrict single-use plastic products in certain protected areas. In addition, Kenya is one of the 187 countries to sign onto the Basel amendments restricting the flow of plastic waste to developing countries.

Actions taken by the United States to undermine global efforts to restrict plastic waste exports and strategies to reduce single-use plastic and other wasteful products may benefit private corporations and for-profit industries that have only share-holder returns in mind, but they are a bad strategy for United States’ interests abroad and will make it difficult to reach more equitable trade agreements that promote sustainable jobs and protect our environment.

We strongly oppose using the trade negotiations with Kenya to undermine their domestic efforts to restrict importation or consumption of single-use plastic and other polluting products. We believe the United States. should begin efforts to ratify the Basel Convention and cease to undermine the Basel plastic amendments in other forums to which that the United States belongs, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The United States should adopt a position like the European Union of not only prohibiting the export of hazardous waste to developing countries, but also include the recently agreed to plastic waste listings in the Basel Annex II.

The United States should make no attempts to undermine Kenya’s, or any other developing nations, domestic laws or regional agreements developed to meaningfully protect the health and environment of its people, such as bans on plastic bags and restrictions on single-use plastics. The United States should publicly affirm this position and begin a process of joining with other countries to proactively address plastic pollution internationally as well as at home.

Sincerely,