Kenya's ban on plastic bags: Will it work?

Plastic bags are a distinct feature in every Kenyan home. Kenyans joke that one of the true marks of being a patriot is having a big plastic bag containing smaller plastic bags hanging behind your kitchen door. Our mothers did it, and thus the tradition must continue. However, an announcement by the Cabinet Secretary, Environment and Natural Resources, earlier this week is threatening to put a stop to this mock tradition.

In a gazette notice dated 28th February 2017, the CS Judi Wakhungu announced the ban on use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging. The ban takes effect in September 2017. As can be expected, the news shook the interwebs, with varying reactions including a resounding applause from the environmentally conscious individuals and organizations.

But, are Kenyans ready for this huge shift?

Every Saturday morning, a man dressed in navy blue overalls knocks on my door, and every other one in the 20 house flat I live in. He comes to pick the weekly stash of trash packed in black plastic bags they supply us with. A monthly fee of Ksh. 150 ($1.50) is remitted to facilitate these services. It is easy, ‘cheap’ and convenient. Our houses remain clean and someone somewhere earns their daily bread. Everybody wins. Or so we like to think. What we never stop to think about is the destination of these huge mounds of trash produced every day. The Dandora dump site in Nairobi is probably the most famous of them all. Do we think of how much of the plastic materials used by the 40 million people in Kenya ends up being recycled? Where does the rest end up? 

According to the United Nations Environmental Agency, Kenyan supermarkets use 100 million plastic bags every year. Plastic bags are the top challenge for urban waste disposal in Kenya. Kenyans will have to go back the ways of old, carrying kiondos that have long been regarded old school and other environmentally friendly bags to the sokos (fresh produce markets) and supermarkets. Kenyans are quite conflicted on the ban, as can be derived from this post:

UNEP also reports that plastic bags contribute to the 8 million tons of plastic that leak into the ocean every year. At this rate, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050. This is bound to affect Kenya directly, as a huge chunk of revenue from local tourism industry comes from activities focused around the Indian Ocean at the coast. Environmentalists see the ban as a step in the right direction as Kenya can begin the journey towards restoring the glory of the land, ridding the country of the eyesore that is pollution.

Is it possible? It should be. Rwanda has been doing it since 2008.

The UN recently declared Kigali the most beautiful city in Africa and the third greenest in the world, and rightly so. On getting to the Rwanda-Uganda border during a recent visit, my bags were searched and all the plastic bags I had had to remain in Uganda. The man doing the searching proudly stated that they do not allow the bags into their country as they are bad for the environment. The blocked ditches and the mountains of trash that are synonymous with Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, do not feature in Kigali and the other towns. It was literally a breath of fresh air to be in Rwanda.

A street in Rwanda's capital, Kigali

The decade long ban on non-biodegradable plastics has however had an adverse effect on the packaging industry in Rwanda. Players in the manufacturing industry have been calling for a review of the policy complaining that cheaper paper bags from Kenya and Uganda are eating into the packaging market as they are more competitive on prices. President Paul Kagame is on record saying that Rwanda will not reverse the ban, but will examine ways of supporting the industry.

Similar concerns are now being expressed in Kenya in the wake of the looming ban. The Kenya Association of Manufacturers say the government’s directive will hurt more than 170 companies and put at least 60, 000 people out of work. They argue that the problem is not plastic bags but consumer behavior. In November last year, the East African Legislative Assembly was forced to shelve debate on the East African Community Polythene Materials Control Bill 2016 after strong opposition from the Kenyan Manufacturers. If Kenya succeeds, a regional ban is likely to come into full effect.

An important consideration for all at this point: Do the benefits outweigh the 'inconveniences?' 

One Debra Kenji, in response to the unemployment concerns;

"...those same factories can now start doing biodegradable paper bags or do the brown bags, the shift may be expensive but worth it eventually. Should we sacrifice our environment or look for better way to manage it?  it will be a win win! Aren't you disgusted by the paper bag filled parks, drainage, fields etc?? I am, and for that I start the change from within, sokoni unaenda na kikapu no more paper bags!"

This will not be Kenya’s first attempt at cleaning up its alleys. Previous attempts in 2007 and 2011 failed. A number of people believe that this is partly due to a lack of good will from the government. An online petition created by one George King’ori to President Uhuru Kenyatta and the Kenyan parliament petitioning them to ban the use and production of plastic bags in November 2016 received about 5, 909 signatures. Not too much, but definitely not a small sum. Maybe even indicative of a more informed people and the possibility of success this time around. We will wait and see.

Photos: Trezer Oguda

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