Plastics were introduced in Kenya in the 1960s as a simple solution for packaging. The polythene bags use gained momentum over the years. Shoppers were supplied with excess of these bags and one could request for any number of bags so long as there was something to be packed. Unfortunately, consumers did not know what to do with them once they unwrapped the bought items. There was little awareness on proper disposal of the bags and appropriate mechanisms of their disposal was lacking.
Plastic bags were favoured by industry, retailers and the public for the following reasons.
1. They are cost-effective, easy to use, and convenient to store.
2. They are available in bulk purchases at very low cost as compared to alternative bags such as reusable cloth bags.
3. Plastic bags are quicker to open, pack, and double up than other bags.
4. Plastic bags are light and require less storage space than other bags.
Over the years, these bags continued to be dumped recklessly and turned into a rather costly undertaking. The plastic bags turned out to be the biggest challenge in solid waste management.
Kenya’s resolve to ban Polythene bags was informed by scientific evidence of the negative effects of the same. The seven reasons why Kenya banned use of plastic carrier bags include the following:-
1. Reduce environmental aesthetics
Once used and disposed improperly, polythene bags becomes litter and finds it’s way into waterways, parks, beaches and streets reducing their aesthetics. Evidence of being near an urban centre was the increase in prevalence of all colour of polythene bags. Our trees were full of differently coloured bags blown by wind.
For the tourist sector, Kenya’s selling point is her natural and scenic beauty, which needs to be safeguarded. A major concern is that the highways being the gateways to Kenya’s major tourist attraction destinations were strewn with scattered plastic waste. Our national parks were no longer natural and were littered either by tourists or through polythene bags blown by wind. Nakuru National Park for instance was collecting tons of polythene bags either blown by wind into the park or carried to the lake by the rivers draining therein. Every month, Nakuru National Park used over Kshs 1 million to clear the polythene bags in the park.
2. Release toxic fumes when burnt
If burned, they pollute air with toxic fumes that contain chemicals including dioxins and furans, which have been linked with cancer. It is common to find people burning waste at dumpsites and at residential areas. The smoke flows freely and people seemed not to be aware of the dangers they were exposed to. Hence many people may have been exposed to carcinogens from plastic smoke.
3. Kills animals after ingesting the bags
They are a threat to aquatic life, wildlife animals and livestock whereby if ingested, the polythene bags fill the gut of the animal and kill it, and remain intact even after the death and decomposition of the animal. Data from abattoirs in Kenya indicated that at least one case per day of animals with plastics in their digestive systems is reported in every abattoir. The most affected livestock are cows, which may be attributed to the selective feeding preferences of other types of livestock such as sheep and goats. A case was reported of a slaughtered cow with an average of 2.5 kilograms of plastic waste in its lumen. This has negative economic impacts especially in dairy cows.
Kenya’s marine ecosystem was not spared either. Every year, tons of polythene bags and other waste was collected from our oceans especially during Coastal Cleanup day. The oceans were littered with all types of polythene bags and marine animals were found with these bags in their lumen.
4. Contribute to flooding in urban areas
Flimsy polythene bags litter clogs drainage and sewer lines increasing the costs of maintenance, and if unattended lead to flooding of urban areas during heavy rains. This makes our roads impassable and cuts off some areas when it rains. If flooding worsens, it can lead to drowning, destruction of houses and loss of life.
5. Act as breeding grounds for harmful organisms
Polythene bags trap stagnant water which becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes that cause malaria which can kill people.The littered bags also provide hideouts for other harmful organisms such as rats, cockroaches and snakes which can harm people either directly or as carriers of disease causing microbes.
6. Take centuries to decompose
The decomposition of polythene bags takes about 1000 years and this means that they remain for long in the environment. Hence the polythene bags that were introduced in Kenya in the 1960’s is still lying somewhere in the environment causing harm to the planet and people.
7. Legal and policy demands
The Constitution of Kenya 2010 Article 42 assures all Kenyans a clean and healthy environment, of course with a demand upon all people to be responsible to safeguard this right. Article 69 obligates the government to eliminate all processes and activities that degrade the environment. Polythene bags are a common environmental menace and needs to be removed from the environment.
To fulfil these constitutional demands, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources has developed several policies, key among them being the Sessional Paper No. 10 of 2014 on Environment Policy. The waste management agenda is further legislated in EMCA Cap 287 and its associated Waste Management Regulations 2006. In addition, the National Solid Waste Management Strategy 2014 further elaborates actions to be taken to address the waste challenge at national and county level.
This Gazette notice No. 2356 issued on 28th February 2017 banned the plastic carrier bags and was a culmination of a healthy debate between the government and the private sector on solid waste management especially on how to eliminate the polythene bags. This engagement started in 2007 when the first legislation was imposed through a finance bill. This bill introduced excise duty on importation of polythene raw materials and products. However, this intervention did not help to solve the plastic bags menace. Hence the discussion between the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, NEMA and the private sector through the Kenya Association of Manufacturers continued, without much result.
From 2007, the main complaint from the private sector was loss of jobs. However careful analysis of this complaint revealed that the direct jobs related to polythene bags were mainly confined in Nairobi where the factories were located. The indirect jobs were mainly retail of the polythene bags. Hence these jobs were localized, engaged only a few people since the system was automated and mechanical; but the environmental damage was nationwide.
This analysis also showed that a shift from polythene carrier bags to alternative bags could create more jobs all over the country. The alternative packaging industry would also revive indigenous art craft and growing of some crops such as sisal and cotton. Hence the cost benefit analysis indicated that removal of carrier bags had elevated levels of livelihood gains as well as environmental conservation benefits.
EMCA Cap 387 requires that NEMA advises the office of the Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MENR) on diverse aspects of environmental management including the areas requiring additional legislation, policies and guidelines. In the case of the plastic carrier bags ban, NEMA advised the Cabinet Secretary to impose a ban on plastic carrier bags.
Law making process demands for extensive consultation with the Attorney General’s office where legal drafting is done. The Cabinet Secretary MENR consulted at length with the Attorney General’s office and the gazette notice no. 2356 was refined and published on 28th February 2017 and a grace period of 6 months was given to the industry and the public to adjust to the ban. The ban became effective on 28th August 2017.
The plastic carrier bags ban has been in place for some time. The alternative bags production has been upscaled and has employed many people from across the country. It is also interesting to note that this livelihood option employs people of all levels of education and gender. Hence it enhances inclusivity.
Since the ban became effective, the country appears to be getting cleaner. The plastic bags littering that was an eyesore is reducing. The residential areas now look less littered. There is hope that if all people comply with the ban and stop using the polythene bags, all the challenges associated with the polythene bags will not be there anymore.