Kenyans have applauded the move by the government to ban plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging terming it as a great move to curb the plastic bag menace.
Through a gazette notice on Tuesday, Prof. Judy Wakhungu, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment announced a total ban on the use, manufacture and import of all plastic bags, to take effect in September this year.
The news of the ban was received positively as various Kenyans and stakeholders took to their social media accounts to commend the cabinet secretary for the ban. Among the first to respond to the News was Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment who tweeted “Fantastic news! Kenya bans plastic bags. Congratulations! A great example! #CleanSeas”
24 million plastic bags used monthly
According to the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), over 24 million plastic bags are used monthly in the Kenya, half of which end up in the solid waste mainstream. Plastic is the most common packaging material in Kenya today. When you go shopping in the country, there is a 99% likelihood that whatever you buy will be packed in a plastic bag. The UN Environment estimates that 100 million plastic bags are handed out every year in Kenya by supermarkets alone. These plastic bags are then poorly disposed on the roadsides, in trenches and illegal dumping sites which have become a norm in the country.
Through their official statement, UNEP Head said that the decision by Kenya is a major breakthrough in the global effort to turn the tide on plastic. “Kenya is taking decisive action to remove an ugly stain on its outstanding natural beauty,” said Erik Solheim.
The statement noted that plastic bags are the number one challenge for urban waste disposal in the country, particularly in the poorest communities where access to disposal systems and healthcare is limited. Plastic bags have been long identified as a major cause of environmental damage and health problems. “They kill birds, fish and other animals that mistake them for food, damage agricultural land, pollute tourist sites and provide breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carry malaria and dengue fever,” read part of the statement.
According to the gazette notice, there are two categories of plastic bags that have been banned by the CS. These are ‘Carrier bag’ which she defines as bags “constructed with handles, and with or without gussets” and ‘Flat bag’ which is “constructed without handles, and with or without gussets.”
Ban a right move towards achieving sustainability
A cross section of Kenyans interviewed in the streets of Nairobi also expressed their happiness towards the ban as well as acknowledged the damage caused by plastics bags. Munene Mwirigi, an IT Student in Nairobi said that this ban was long overdue and he eagerly awaits to see it being implemented. “Dumping of plastic bags has been a major challenge and I believe with this ban, it will end littering and poor disposal, our trenches and waterways will be clear and Nairobi will be a better place to live in,” said Munene. He adds that plastic manufacturing companies should also convert to manufacturing biodegradable shopping bags and packaging.
For fashion enthusiast Naomi Aginga, this ban is the right direction towards achieving a clean and conducive environmental sustainability. She notes that plastic bags have given the country an ugly face as they are littered everywhere on the main highways and even within the major cities. “This ban is the first basic step towards more progressive actions that will lead us to a cleaner Kenya and also allow us to achieve our vision for 2030 and sustainable goals,” said Naomi. She notes that this issue could also be solved if Kenyans can be keen on recycling plastic bags. “We would not be here if we had cultivated the culture of going shopping with a plastic bag in your possession already rather than collecting a new one every time you shop,” she said.
As a young entrepreneur, Josephine Nanjala considers the ban as an opportunity for youth. She says that young entrepreneurs should seize the opportunity by designing alternative packaging materials. “At the moment very few companies manufacture biodegradable packaging bags so this is a good opportunity for us,” said Josephine. She adds that the youth should not be scared in venturing into that business as the market is big and has not been explored yet.
For Kenneth Ochieng, an environmental activist, this ban is a great idea which will help to mitigate environmental degradation mostly in urban areas. Ochieng, who has been on the forefront campaigning against the use of plastic bags by supermarkets and other retail outlets added that the implementation of the ban should be exercised without fear or favor. He notes that some of the supermarkets recognized the menace caused by plastic bags but they still packed for their customers in them. “If you look at how some of the retail supermarkets pack for their customers in countries like Rwanda and how they do it here you wonder. Same chain of store but in Rwanda they use better packing material and here they give us plastic bags,” he said.
Similar ban a success in neighboring Rwanda
Rwanda banned the use of non-biodegradable polythene bags in 2008. The ban was a blessing as today Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in Africa. The streets of Kigali are free of mountains of rubbish made up of plastic waste, a sharp contrast of what you witness in the streets of Nairobi. When traveling to the country, one would not fail to notice the difference the plastic bag ban has brought about.
At the border points, officials from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) inspect luggage of all travelers getting into the country confiscating any plastic bag in a travelers belongings. At the Kigali International airport, visitors are greeted by a huge sign that says “the use of non-biodegradable polythene bags is prohibited.”
The ban of non-biodegradable polythene bags in Rwanda stipulates that ‘every citizen is entitled to a healthy and satisfying environment.’ It also emphasizes that each citizen bears the responsibility to ‘protect, safeguard and promote the environment’.
Enid Kathambi, a frequent traveler from Kenya admires the seriousness at which the ban is executed in Rwanda. She said that on her first trip to Rwanda she was shocked when her luggage was checked and all the plastic bags in her possession stripped away. “The good thing about this is the cleanliness they have achieved. I have been to some interior parts of Rwanda like Gisenyi, that are so beautiful and cleaner than our Nairobi and it made me feel like crying for our recklessness and untidiness,” said Enid.
Businesses in the country are also required to use packaging material made up of paper. Enid believes that Kenya too can succeed in implementing the ban and hence building a cleaner Kenya. “If their supermarkets, retail shops, butcheries and all the markets have succeeded in using alternative packing material, then we can also achieve that,” she adds.
Problem experienced even in rural Kenya
Even though it has been touted as more of an urban issue, rural Kenya is also suffering from accumulation of plastic bags. Local farmers suffer a great deal because of plastic bags when their animals eat plastic materials or when plastics bags are disposed in their farms rendering it unusable since it does not decompose.
Tom Simiyu, a farmer in rural kakamega, western Kenya says that the spread of plastic bags in the farm has been a hindrance to a good harvest. “I am now forced to pick all plastic bags from my farm before cultivating because when it gets buried in the soil it affects the farm’s productivity,” said Tom. The father of two says that he now encourages his family to recycle plastic bags and not accept their shopping to be packed in a plastic bag if not necessary. “We were piling them in the house then they find their way to the farm, which I used to burn but that was not the solution,” he adds.
Conservation organizations commend the ban
Various conservation organizations also expressed their joy about the ban through their official Twitter accounts. The Green Belt Movement, which was founded by environmentalist and Nobel Peace Laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai tweeted ‘Another Win for the Environment. Thank You CS’
Save The Elephants, an organization that has been championing for protection of elephants said “We are excited about this awesome news! Such a great way to save our environment”
The UN Environment recently launched the #CleanSeas campaign urging governments to pass plastic reduction policies; targeting industry to minimize plastic packaging and redesign products as well as calling on consumers to change their throwaway habits before irreversible damage is done on seas.
Plastic bags also contribute to the 8 million tons of plastic that leak into the ocean every year. According to UNEP, at the current rates by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish, wreaking havoc on marine fisheries.
The ban makes Kenya the 11th country to take action in support of the UN Environment campaign. In Africa, Rwanda and Morocco have already banned plastic bags and other countries are set to announce measures in the coming weeks.
“Kenya should be commended for its environmental leadership. It’s a great example that I hope will inspire others, and help drive further commitments to the Clean Seas campaign,” said Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment.