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A trader in Kenya displays some of her goods in the supposedly banned single use plastic bags (Photo from The East African).

Are Plastics back in Kenya Despite the Ban?

By David Okul
July 18, 2019

On the 28th August 2017, the then Cabinet Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Professor Judy Wakhungu, banned the use, manufacture, and importation of plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging through the Gazette Notice number 2334 and 2356. Kenya followed the footsteps of countries such as Denmark, Bangladesh, and Rwanda that had implemented a plastic ban. And, its penalties are among the harshest in the world.

The ban affected all plastic secondary package carrier bags notwithstanding their thickness or color. Nevertheless, flat plastic bags for industrial primary packaging were exempt from the ban as long as they were not available for sale outside the industrial setting and they should be printed with the name of the company and the product. Also, the ban did not affect plastic sheets for construction and greenhouses, cling films, and adhesive tapes.

Plastics are known to cause a myriad of environmental problems.

Plastic pollution is a problem
Plastic bags are a major cause of pollution. They often end up affecting domestic and wild animals. Sea creatures are perhaps the most affected by plastic (Image by Francis Ray from Pixabay)

Plastic pollution have diverse negative effects that range from climate change to animal health. Bans on plastics go a long way in addressing some of the effects of plastics

Plastic must be the bad boy of pollution

The primary purpose of the ban was to reduce plastic pollution in the country. Although the convenience of plastic bags is virtually unmatched, it also brings extraordinary environmental problems. For instance, the material doesn’t biodegrade and would most likely end up in the ocean leading to devastating consequence to the marine life.

In theory, some of the plastic wastes could be recycled. However, only 1-3% of plastic is recycled in practice. The rest of the plastic is ubiquitous in landfills, oceans and the streets. The pollution is not only present at the disposal stage as its production process is also a concern. Plastic production uses up to 8% of global oil resources.

Kenya banned plastic because of the environmental problems associated with it. The plastic bags were, and are still an eyesore, in some of the major towns in Kenya. The eyesore was also present in some of Kenya’s unrivaled natural heritage sites such as the beautiful Masai Mara.  For the residents of cities such as Nairobi, plastic bags were a major contributor to the blockage of drainages leading to flooding. Numerous reports have also shown that plastic bags were eaten by livestock and wildlife to their detriment. Moreover, they also presented public health risks as reusing plastic is a hotbed for pathogens.

The decision to ban plastic in Kenya was certainly welcome by a variety of stakeholders including environmentalists and public health professionals.

The imperfect ban

The common saying half a loaf of bread is better than no bread could apply to the plastic ban in Kenya. An imperfect ban would be better than no ban. The ban is imperfect because of two reasons. First, polypropylene is still widely used in Kenya. Secondly, it is suspected that single-use plastic bags are making a comeback. Although they are still plastics, polypropylene reusable and are not as thin as the polythene bags that could be easily carried by the wind.

However, a more concerning issue is the observation of the re-emergence of plastic bags. The small colorless plastic bags are noticeable in most market areas of Kenya. Does this mean that the government is more relaxed about the plastic ban?

Supermarkets have complied with the ban in Kenya, but not the small scale traders
A trader in Kenya displays some of her goods in the supposedly banned single use plastic bags (Photo from The East African).

Businesses such as supermarkets have complied with the ban. Additionally, companies that used to manufacture the bags have stopped, and closed, or resorted to other businesses. Nevertheless, The EastAfrican reported in 2018 that the ‘banned’ plastic bags are back amongst small traders vending fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, and paraffin. However, the vendors rarely display the bags in public. Many choose to use the bags only for the customers they know and trust. New customers are often told to bring their own carrier bags.

The small traders claim that plastic bags are their ideal packaging material because of its convenience. The product is still cheap and is their preferred packaging material because of its hygienic and unbulky nature. Most of the traders claim that they are using plastic bags because they see their colleagues use them. The major fear that the traders have is that they may lose business to the traders who have the bags.

Ironically, the buyers claim that it is the traders fault. The EastAfrican report that one of the buyers’ claim, “I’m only buying goods, so I take them in whatever material they’re packed in.” It is difficult to assign blame, but we think the buyer should steal demand that the goods bought should be packed in ‘legal’ packaging. After all, the risks for using and distributing plastic bags in Kenya is up to 4 years in prison and fines that could range from $19,417 and $38,834.

Obviously, there are dealers who distribute the bags to traders as the bags are readily available in most parts of Kenya. The EastAfrican report that a pack of 200 flat bags used to retail at US$ 0.3 and 0.5, but it now costs at US$ 1.5. The trade of flat plastic bags must be a booming business!

It is suspected that most of the bags in Kenya emanate from Uganda. The Kenyan environmental czar, the National Environmental and Management Authority (NEMA) is aware of the mushrooming business of illegal plastic trade. It warns that users and distributors of illegal plastic risk severe punishment from the law.

At Silvica, we think the buyer has the greatest responsibility in ensuring that the plastic ban in Kenya is effective. Buyers should carry their own packaging materials when they are making purchases. They should insist on avoiding purchasing goods packaged in illegal plastic. Businesses are only responding to the demands of the buyer. After all, the plastic ban is beneficial to the small scale traders as it relieves them of the responsibility of packaging material for the products!

References and Resources

David Okul is a freelance writer, and a PhD student at a Kenyan university