Opinion: Kenya’s Plastic Bag Ban: Is it time to go to rest?

It is unarguable: Plastic bag use is a bane of our society in the 21st century.

Photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

Everywhere you go, you see sachets of water littering the streets or filling the drainages or even hanging on tree branches due to improper disposal. The producers of these plastic materials are also not helping matters by not embracing extended producer responsibility.

According to Mathias Wandera, plastic bags are non-biodegradable and may take up to 400 years to decompose; they choke the soils, block the smooth water filtration and percolation into the soil and affect soil fertility. They fly off the road into drainage systems and block the waterways which often results in flooding and the outbreak of water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid. There have been concerns in Kenya about cows ingesting plastic bags and dying as a result. On average, 20 plastic bags are found in a cow at a Nairobi abattoir and this raises fear about contamination of beef. It is therefore understandable that the Samburu pastoralists welcome the ban which could help reduce their loss.

The UN Environment Programme estimated that 40% of cattle in Kenya that died during the drought ingested plastic materials. This is coming at a time when 60-80% of ocean litters are made of plastics causing the death of at least one million seabirds and about a hundred thousand sharks, turtles, dolphins and whales. Petter Malvik, UN Environment Programme Communications Officer, said in April that 99 per cent of all seabirds will have ingested plastic by mid-century. By 2050, there would be more plastics in the ocean than fish if people do not stop using single-use plastic materials.

About 20 plastic bags are found in every cow killed in an Abattoir in Nairobi. Source: BBC

This must be why Kenya has moved for the third time to join Tunisia, Botswana, Somalia, Rwanda, Ethiopia and some other African nations to put a total ban on the use of plastic bags in the country. The news of the ban came on Monday 28 August after a six-month adjustment window, meaning that offenders will now pay a sum of $38,000 or spend up to four years in prison. According to BBC, the country uses about 24 million plastic bags in a month. It will be recalled that the UN Environment declared war on ocean plastic in February at The Economist’s World Ocean Summit held in Bali, Indonesia. Therefore in a tweet on Monday, the UN Environment commended Kenya for joining in the #CleanSeas campaign and banning the use, manufacture and importation of single-use plastic bags.

The ban has raised fear among Kenyans due to a possible loss of about 300000 jobs in the plastic value chain. Phylis Wakiaga of Kenya Association of Manufacturers told Aljazeera that the ban could mean a loss of 60,000 direct jobs. Nancy Warungu, a waste collector and mother of seven, is already concerned about how she will feed her family with the ban on plastic materials. However, despite the ban, a company in Nairobi which turns plastic waste into construction materials feels unperturbed. This is because of the abundance of plastic waste in the country that the ban cannot make to disappear.

Since the ban on plastic bags in Kenya is to save the environment from the harm resulting from plastic bags, the job is yet to be done. The problem with plastic bags is not solved by merely banning it or placing a high fee on its use. Now that it has been banned, the government needs to point people in the direction of alternatives and continue its public awareness campaign on the harm that these materials pose to the environment. Daniella Maroma shares the same concern that without providing sustainable alternatives for the people, the plastic bag ban may not hold and may give rise to a plastic bag black market in the country. Some stakeholders have expressed displeasure in their non-involvement in the plans and are challenging the government, especially the Kenya Manufacturers’ Association.

There is a need for more campaigns (online and offline) targeted at changing the attitude of individuals towards waste and involvement of relevant stakeholders for an effective transition period. This is the time for non-governmental, environmental organisations to rise to the challenge by going out to talk to people. Many people litter their emptied plastic water bags on the road thinking the government has employed sanitation officers to come clear it the next day. There is the need for waste education in schools to ensure that students grow with the right attitude about waste disposal. In addition, governments will do well by providing waste bins in strategic public places to aid proper waste collection, even beyond plastic wastes and to achieve the sustainable development goals.

This ban is a great opportunity for entrepreneurs and innovators in Kenya to spring into action in search of alternatives to one-time-use plastic bags. We have suffered enough in the hands of improperly managed polythene bags. The Kenya research and science communities should join the world in finding sustainable alternatives to plastic use. Skipping Rocks Lab in London is already involved in this challenge solving on-the-go plastic water challenge: with Ooho, you don’t have to worry about where your bottles will be recycled as you’re the recycler. Once you’re done drinking your water, you can consume the edible material that contains it.

This is also a time to assist indigenous craftsmen and women to upscale the production of reusable locally made bags for shopping. When Uganda banned the use of plastic bags in 2007, Rusia Orikiza saw an opportunity as an undergraduate and started Oribags innovation where she makes environmentally-friendly bags from agricultural wastes. Another Uganda, Godfrey Atuheire started making paper bags out of banana in 2006 from school. In Yola Nigeria, despite that a total ban has not been placed on plastic bag yet, women are weaving attractive bags out of collected thrown-away plastic bags.


Women weaving reusable bags in Uganda to replace plastic bag. Source: Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Since the ban on plastic bag use or importation in Rwanda nine years ago, there has been no mountain of rubbish or plastic carrier bags floating in the wind or stranded on a tree branch, says Emelie Clavel. The country encouraged manufacturers of plastic bags to recycle them and then a market for environmentally friendly bags spurred. This was a country recovering from a horrific genocide that resulted in about 800,000 deaths in 1994 not fearing the economic consequences on small businesses that depended on plastic bags; why not Kenya or any other African nation for that matter if proper measures are taken?

Kenya is banning plastic bag for the third time in ten years now, just like Uganda in that region. It is not the time to go sit back. Instead, more actions, like involving stakeholders and giving the people proper orientation, are still needed to ensure the effectiveness of the law.

Nigeria, especially the Ministry of Environment and Office of the Special Assistant to the President on SDGs, should monitor progress in Kenya and other African nations that have embraced banning plastic bags closely and learn from their challenges. This will ensure a smooth transition when we are finally ready to call plastic bag use in Nigeria a quit. (May that day come soon enough)!

Toyib Aremu

Toyib Aremu is an environmental sustainability enthusiast. He is currently a postgraduate student at the Centre for Sustainable Development, University of Ibadan. When he is not preaching sustainability to young ones in schools, he is on Twitter @aremuoropo tweeting about it.