Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary in charge of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, Prof. Judy Wakhungu, has set in motion the process of banning the manufacture, use, and importation of plastic bags in Kenya. In the Kenya Gazette Notice no. 2356 published on 14th March, 2017, Prof. Wakhungu declared a ban on all plastic bags effective from 28th August, 2017. The ban applies on:
a)Carrier bags: those with handles, and with or without gussets
b)Flat bags: constructed without handles, with or without gussets
The ban has been a long way coming with respect to concerns raised on the environmental impact of plastic bags by many environmentalists. It has been received with mixed reactions from environmentalists and manufacturers.
For a long time, plastic bags have been the choice for carrying items in Kenya especially from retail outlets. The bags come in various sizes, and it is estimated that an individual shopper uses approximately 3 new plastic carrier bags each day since they are freely given. Even though they are ‘free,’ the cost of plastic bags is passed on to the consumer through a “consumption cost” imposed by the retailers and other supermarkets. Beyond their intended purpose, plastic bags have had a severe environmental impact:
A spot check of Nairobi reveals a city choked with all manner of plastic debris that has become an eyesore. Kenyans are not known to be environmentally-savvy and are fond of throwing their litter haphazardly, despite the numerous dust bins placed strategically in streets of most towns. Dump sites, like the one in Dandora, are operating beyond their capacity making it more difficult to control plastic waste. It is worse in the rural areas where land productivity has gradually declined due to the impact of plastic waste trapped in the soil that doesn’t allow the penetration of water.
Blocking of the drainage system
Plastic waste has contributed to the blockage of the drainage system in major towns. It is not a surprise that during the rainy season the streets and roads get flooded due to an ineffective drainage system. The plastic waste is swept off the streets and into the drainage system where it causes clogging. Worse still, little maintenance of the drainage system is rarely done by the relevant authorities. The blame game keeps shifting depending on who is involved: the citizens blame NEMA for failing to enforce measures on waste disposal and the county governments for failing to collect garbage, the county governments blame it on citizens and budgetary deficiencies, while policy makers heap the blame on lack of public awareness on environmental conservation and lack of enforcement.
Impact on wildlife and marine life
Plastic bags find their way into water bodies when blown away by the wind or swept by floods. The colored ones are usually mistaken for food by birds, animals, and marine organisms such as zooplanktons, fish and sea turtles. The plastic bags congest the digestive and respiratory systems of the organism leading to infections or death through suffocation. Others like turtles get entangled in plastic waste which hampers their movement. Additionally, the food chain is affected by the ingestion of the plastics by organisms as small as planktons. The waste chemicals present in plastic bags accumulate through the food chain thus affecting larger animals who depend on others for food. This means that the fish consumed by humans is potentially harmful.
Harmful to human health
When plastic waste is burned as a disposal method, toxic gases are released into the atmosphere that are harmful to human health and a threat to climate. The toxic substances result in respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis and asthma. Greenhouse gases are emitted into the environment leading to the depletion of the ozone layer that ultimately causes changes in climate. When disposed improperly, the plastic bags harbor when it rains where mosquitoes breed thus leading to increased cases of malaria.
Countries that have banned or tax plastic bags heavily
In recognition of the adverse effects of plastic bags on the environment and health, some countries have either placed a total ban or enforced high taxes on plastic bags. Kenya is the latest country to introduce a total ban on the manufacture, use, and importation of plastic bags. The first country to impose sanctions on plastic bags was Denmark, which began in 1993. Additional charges were (are) levied for on plastic bags, which has resulted in a drop of 60%. Ireland introduced the 2002 'bag tax' where consumers have to purchase bags, which has led to a 90% drop in usage. The utilization of plastic bags was increasing by the year 2007, which necessitated a further increase in the price of the plastic bags. The European Union has set a target of 80% reduction in the use of plastic bags by 2019 thus compelling most countries to rethink their policies on the manufacture and use of plastic bags
Other countries that are trying to control the effect of plastic bags include Wales, which has enforced a minimum charge of 5p on all plastic bags since October, 2011. The charge applies for all retailers, and by July 2012, a 96% drop in the number of plastic bags provided by shops was recorded. In Italy, distributing plastic bags manufactured from non-biodegradable sources was banned in January, 2011.
A 5p charge is applied in Scotland on all plastic bags used in retail outlets or online since October, 2014. The utilization of single-use bags fell by more than 80% within the first year. In Germany, all outlets providing plastic bags are subjected to a recycling tax. As of July 2013, 17 states and 98 cities & counties in the United Sates had either placed bans or pending. The number had grown to 20 states and 132 cities by 2014. Fines are imposed on stores providing plastic bags to customers in Mexico since August, 2010. Brazil introduced an outright ban on plastic bags in October, 2007.
In Australia, lightweight bags are not banned though some states like South Australia and North Territory along have independently placed a ban on them. They were first banned in Coles Bay, Tasmania. In 2008, the ‘Zero Waste’ program was introduced in South Australia, which has resulted in the ban of lightweight plastic bags. China imposed a total ban on plastic bags in June, 2008.
In Bangladesh, plastic bags were banned in 2002 following severe flooding between 1988 and 1998 submerging over two thirds of the country in water. The primary cause was the blockage of the drainage system by plastic waste and garbage. In France, a total ban was effected in Paris January 2007. Large retail outlets in other cities and towns banned free carriers and introduced a charge of between 2p and 42p for reusable bags. Belgium introduced a plastic bag tax in 2007.
In Africa, charges and bans are placed on plastic bags in several countries. Rwanda Botswana, South Africa, Uganda, Somaliland, Ethiopia, and Kenya are some of the African countries that have placed total bans on the manufacture, use, and importation of plastic bags
Plastic bag ban in Rwanda
In 2004, shops were prohibited from giving away plastic bags thus reducing their consumption. A total ban on plastic bags has been in place in Rwanda since 2008 in line with its Vision 2020 to promote a sustainable environment. To effect the ban incentives were given: tax breaks were provided for companies that recycled plastic bags instead of manufacturing them while creating a new market for bags that were environmentally friendly. Its capital, Kigali, now boasts as one of the cleanest cities in the world. Rwanda’s ban is the strictest to the point that visitors are required to hand over all their plastic bags at their points of entry into the country. The country is now mulling on banning other types of plastic, and potentially make it the first plastic-free country in the world.
Economic implications of banning plastic bags in Kenya
Prof. Wakhungu, in announcing the ban against the manufacture, use, and importation of plastic bags didn’t offer any viable alternatives. Concerns have also been raised over the commercial impact of the ban. The Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) has also issued a statement expressing concern on the lack of consultation with all stakeholders who are likely to be affected. According to KAM, the ban of plastics will adversely affect jobs and livelihood of many Kenyans since there are over 176 companies manufacturing plastics that directly employ 2.89% of all Kenyan employees and over 60,000 people indirectly.
Potential alternatives to plastic bags
In her order to ban plastic bags in Kenya, the Cabinet Secretary did not disclose whether environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic bags were considered. The most viable alternative is the reintroduction of manila paper bags for packaging in retail stores. They were the preferred choice for packaging long before plastic bags were introduced. The manila bags are currently used in packaging items like cement and food as used in most fast food outlets serving fish & chips, popcorns, as well as packing maize and wheat flour. Other forms of paper like those used in making newspapers can be used to pack meat. These bags are easy and cheap to produce, and they decompose easily when disposed. The recovery rate for manila paper bags is four times greater than that of plastic bags. Additionally, the source of energy for making manila paper is renewable or carbon-neutral. Even though they are not as durable as plastic paper bags, they are eco-friendly, recyclable, foldable, and easy to store. These bags can be used to hold compostable waste, and are safe to kids since they do not contain harmful chemicals.
Crotchet bags made from wool or yarn using a crochet needle at a home present a suitable alternative to plastic bags. They are easy and cheap to make. Crotchet bags can be reused and only need to be washed regularly. They are ideal when shopping for groceries or when carrying stuff when going out for a picnic.
Straw bags made from papyrus reeds are another excellent alternative to plastic bags. They are easy and cheap to make at home, and durable. Straw bags are made in in different sizes and shapes. In Kenya, they are popularly used for collecting tea leaves after picking in plantations. They are suitable for carrying stuff to work, carrying food, and shopping for grocery.
Policy alternatives to counter the impact of plastic waste
There are viable alternatives that the Cabinet Secretary would have considered before banning them. At the moment, plastic bags used for packaging commodities in retail outlets are provided for free to the consumer. This could be the reason why most Kenyans are not keen to recycle them and only use them once before they are disposed. The current cost of a plastic bag should, for instance, be tripled and a policy introduced where the bags would be expensive to acquire from retail outlets. In this case, the customer is compelled to buy their plastic bags instead of them being given freely. It could encourage the customer to reuse the bag when they go to purchase items and deter those who use them for a single purpose and dispose them. Additionally, the retail outlets in partnership with recycling plants are compelled to have a collection point where plastic bags that can no longer be used are returned for recycling. Individuals who return a specified weight of plastic bags are paid a certain amount per kilogram. They are then handed over to recycling plants. This policy is effective in implementing the 3Rs since in making the plastic bags expensive consumption would be Reduced. When a customer goes back to a retail outlet with their plastic bag they had acquired earlier, it would have been Reused. When collected and handed over to recycling plants, the third R, Recycle would have been implemented.
To achieve this, the relevant environmental authorities have to create public awareness at the grassroots level on the impact of plastic bags on the environment and how the public could use them responsibly. Littering the environmental is a behavioral trait that can easily be modified through awareness campaigns. Most of the awareness programs carried out by environmental agencies are usually at the boardroom, which does not trickle down to the common citizens. Holding conferences alone in an effort to conserve the environment won’t yield much, mass awareness programs could play a critical role in curbing the misuse and inappropriate disposal of plastic waste. In doing this, emphasis must be placed on the 3Rs of sustainable waste management: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
The 3Rs of sustainable waste management can positively impact the economics of environmental conservation in Kenya. By reducing, reusing, and recycling plastic bags, less waste is introduced to the environment meaning less resources are allocated by environmental authorities in managing it. The resources saved can be put into other meaningful use for sustainable growth of the economy and environmental conservation. Chemicals emitted to the atmosphere by plastic waste when disposed or through ingestion by animals are reduced. This implies the cases of people developing respiratory diseases will go down thus reducing healthcare related bills. The number of animals choking when ingesting plastics reduces thus cutting down the losses.
There is no doubt that that plastic bags have had adverse effects on the environment, as well as on animal and human health. Banning the manufacture, use, and importation of plastic bags in is a long term solution to curb the plastic bag menace. However, the Cabinet Secretary ought to have involved all stakeholders to come up with an effective policy on how to get rid of plastic bags. For instance, it would have made sense to progressively phase out the plastic bags while introducing environmentally friendly alternatives. Livelihoods will be lost once the over 176 manufacturing companies close shop when the ban is effected. Where will they turn to?