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Reconceiving the Plastic Bag Ban

Plastic waste has been causing immeasurable damage to the ecosystem- an ecosystem that is all too fragile and vital to the preservation of life on the land and sea affecting the environment, wildlife and human health. It is to this accord that the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources together with the National Environmental Authority(NEMA) put a ban on plastic bags on August 28th 2017, Gazette notice No.2356 of 2017. This was a day of great shifts in Kenya’s journey towards sustainable development.

Kenya’s ban on plastic bags was long overdue seeing as other countries in Africa and beyond had already imposed such a ban as part of their development agendas. In 2018, UNEP reported that at least 60 nations have banned single use plastic. In 2016, Morocco, which was in fact the second largest consumer of plastic bags, banned their use. In 2008, Rwanda also banned the use of plastic bags as part of its Vision 2020 sustainability plans. In Asia, Bangladesh imposed a strict ban on plastic bags while Hong Kong introduced a bag levy in a bid to control the use of plastic bags. In the United States of America some states such as California have banned disposable plastic bags.

Despite the Gazette notice published on 28th August, 2017 allowing a grace period of 6 months, the penalty for manufacturing, importing and selling a plastic bag can easily be deemed as the world’s harshest as the punishment ranges from fines of around $19,000 to $38,000 and or a jail term of 4 years. The exemption to the rule includes plastics used in primary industrial packaging in accordance with approved standards i.e trash bin lines, plastic bags used for disposing medical waste and chemicals as well those used for industrial packaging of products.

So, were the plastic bags so bad? Yes, simply yes. Despite plastic bags being a major part of the manufacturing industry at the time, the alternatives such as sisal bags, canvas bags, clothing bags and other kind of bags that are not made of plastic are better for the environment and in the long run. In terms of the alignment of the manufacturing sector with the country’s development goals, the Big 4 Agenda and Vision 2030 as well as the United Nations’ SDGs. Furthermore, plastic bags are usually manufactured for single use and usually tear or puncture after 1st use. They are easily transported by the wind and are some of the most visible components of pollution. 

Plastic bags are produced from oil and gas and are never fully biodegradable hence remaining in the environment sometimes as microscopic particles. According to NEMA, this means forever. Other effects of plastic on the environment include the pacific trash vortex, litter problems, greenhouse gases among others.

Waste management was also an issue. According to a study published by the Office of the DVC Research, Innovation and Enterprise, University of Nairobi, in 2017, at the time of the ban, about 1 million plastic bags were consumed annually in supermarkets alone. Nairobi City County which generated over 2400 tonnes of waste per day alluded to their inability to manage waste including plastic waste. The study stated that half the waste goes to the Dandora dumpsite while the remaining is dumped illegally and in some cases the waste is not collected at all.

The main challenge with this is that if formulas are interpreted properly, you will find that plastic fits in the category of hazardous waste by virtue of having elements like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine and sulphur in its composition as well as by virtue of being carcinogenic. Plastic bags become toxic when not properly used and disposed of.

In other countries such as Sweden “plastic becomes plastic raw materials”. This is due to waste management systems being guided by a system of waste minimization as a top priority. Sweden has shown great commitment to environmental protection, initiatives and policies backed by strict laws in the area of waste management. Sweden has developed action plans for waste prevention as well. Companies in the manufacturing sector have also joined in greener production including accepting back plastic waste for reuse as well as making bags from sugar cane that is biodegradable. An important note for Kenya from Sweden’s situation is that any remaining waste is not dumped at a dumpsite but is used to generate energy through incineration; energy producers are actually tax-exempt.

Kenya really needs to reflect and strategize in so far as its commitment to sustainability is concerned, in this context: plastic bag ban. Challenges to the effectiveness of this rule include: weak enforcement from regulatory bodies, a porous black market that has led to the infiltration of the banned products into Kenya through smuggling, intense resistance of the policy among others have served the directive a tall order.

Environmental protection can only be achieved through the participation of all stakeholders and is not something that can be left to the regulator alone. The private sector should also show initiative and support towards the successful implementation of the plastic bag ban. The Government of Kenya, in addition to recognizing the efforts by such companies, should look to partnering with the companies or at least provide some form of incentive to motivate companies that show commitment towards The “plastic bag ban”

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