After three previous unsuccessful attempts to ban the use, sale, manufacture and import of plastic bags in 2005, 2007 and 2011, we finally managed to do it on 28th August 2017 when the ban came into effect. It was gazetted by the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Professor Judy Wakhungu, on 28th February 2017 and Kenyans were given a six month grace period to prepare themselves for lives free of plastic bags.
The ban is with good reason: plastic bags take between 500 to 1,000 years to break down, and are a major contributor to the 8 million tonnes of plastic dumped in the sea every year. At current rates, it is estimated that by 2050 we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish. About 100 million plastic bags were handed out to Kenyan shoppers (before the ban) each year according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and many of these bags found their way into our food chain through cows, goats, fish and other animals. Professor Wakhungu stated that plastic bags constitute the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya.
Indeed, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) cites the inability of plastic bags to decompose (which affects soil quality), the littering plastic bags in various parts of the country, the blockage of sewerage and water drainage infrastructure (causing floods during the raining season), damage of ecosystems and biodiversity, death of animals after consuming plastic material, endangering human health when used for packaging food (in particular hot food), producing poisonous gases (for example, when used as fuel to light charcoal) and air pollution when disposed by burning in open air. All these are solid reasons.
Kenya becomes one of more than 40 other countries to take a tough stance on plastic bags, though our ban is by far the harshest. The only plastic bags exempt from the ban are garbage bin liners, plastic bags for disposing medical waste and chemicals, as well as plastic bags used for industrial packaging of products. If found contravening this law, one is “liable to a fine of not less than two million Kenya Shillings, and not more than four million Kenya Shillings, or imprisonment of a term of not less than one year but not more than four years, or to both such fine and imprisonment.”
If this sounds Draconian, it’s because it is. Plastic bags are such everyday things in Kenya that many people can’t imagine their lives without them. We are accustomed to buying fruits, vegetables and other household goods and having them packed in plastic bags. When we buy fruits, roast maize or even roast meat on the roadside, the vendor will most times have their hands covered in a clear polythene bag so as not to directly touch/possibly contaminate our food. This is because it is difficult to maintain good hygiene given the limited access to tap water in many places. We have even had cholera outbreaks for this reason. In informal settlements, due to the lack of a proper sewage/waste management system and sanitation facilities, flying toilets (where people relieve themselves and throw the plastic bag out) have been the norm.
Because of the central role plastic bags play in Kenyans’ lives, many understandably panicked when they realized that this time the country was actually going through with the ban. Questions were asked (and continue to be asked) about the extent of the ban – it was these questions that led to garbage bin liners to be excluded from it. Even more questions need to be asked.
For example, why is it that government agencies chose to be antagonistic about the ban’s implementation? Many Kenyans reported being stopped on the streets for random police searches without warrants, and when found with plastic bags, being extorted for a bribe in order to be released. This led to scaremongering online until NEMA clarified that it had not sanctioned these searches, and that their initial target with regards to compliance was manufacturers and suppliers. Why was this not communicated beforehand to avoid the seemingly unavoidable victimization of Kenyan citizens by state organs? Why is it that we keep paying for state laxity?
Something else that stands to me was that there seemed to be little concern over the jobs that would be lost – the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) estimated that over 60,000 jobs would be lost and 176 manufacturers closed. This is not to say that the manufacture, sale and use of plastic bags should continue, but to ask why we care so little about the incomes of average Kenyans. Are there any efforts to ensure that they are able to find other jobs? If their skills are highly specialized, are we thinking of how they could be retrained for other opportunities? Or does that not matter in Kenya?
The ban is also a continuation of the Kenyan policy mindset that prefers punishment to reinforcement. Why? As opposed to long jail terms and Draconian fines intended to decrease the manufacture, import, sale and use of plastic bags, why not treat Kenyans as allies, as opposed to enemies? This would involve educating Kenyans on why we are banning plastics, and taking them along on a journey – from conceptualization to actualization – until we reduce and afterwards end the use of plastic bags. What are the viable alternatives for plastic bags in all the scenarios they are used in Kenya? What do people do with the stash of plastic bags they have at home?
We need to understand why plastic bags are such a key feature of Kenyan life. Perhaps, however, we do already understand. It is the work of our national and county governments to guarantee our health and safety – something at which they have failed consistently in the recent past. When people use flying toilets, it is because of government failure. When people are unable to have accessible/reliable water supply and have to wrap their hands in plastic bags, it is because of government failure. When people pay private garbage collection services, it is because of government failure. It could be that the state is well aware of this, and as opposed to fixing the situation, it is committed to band aid solutions that fight the symptoms but not the disease.
I am fully behind global and local efforts to end the use of plastic bags (and plastic in general) in favour of eco-friendly alternatives. However, these efforts need to centre the people they affect. We need to ask ourselves what failures got us here as a world, and as a country, and how we can solve them with the majority’s buy in, while providing viable solutions. The reason plastic bag use is so prevalent in Kenya is because of system failures. Until we fix these failures, the use of plastic bags will continue to be a problem.