It is not uncommon to find plastic bottles and bags strewn carelessly on the road in many towns in Kenya. Rongai, a town on the outskirts of Nairobi, is suffering as a result of a fast-growing population, poor sewerage systems, and ever-rising mounds of plastic waste.
Several paved and unpaved roads linking suburbs in Rongai have sewer drains choking in plastic bags and bottles, and raw sewage often spews out to some roads, shops, and even residences.
As a coup de grace for many Rongai residents and elsewhere, Kenya will officially ban plastic bags as from September 2017. This is according to Environment CS, Judy Wakhungu, in a gazette notice filed on February 27th, 2017.
The directive further restricts the “use, manufacture, and importation of plastic bags for commercial and household packaging.”
It should be noted that this is not the first time Kenya has attempted to pass legislation banning plastics. Similar efforts in 2005, 2007 and 2011 failed for various reasons including lack of political will, low stakeholder participation, and a rather “stiff-necked” public.
This goes to say that implementing the plastic ban starting in September will not be a walk in the park. There are various reasons for this. In neighbouring Rwanda, the nation set a global precedent by banning the use of plastic bags in 2008, a year before the United Nation (U.N) stated that their manufacture has “zero justification.”
However, as recently as 2016, the United States and other developed nations were in the process or in advanced stages of implementing laws banning plastics. For most countries, what makes ‘sense’ to them is applying taxes on plastics, and instituting punitive fines for anyone who breaks violations regarding plastic use.
When the U.N. tried to rein member nations in 2008 to prohibit single-use of plastic bags, it raised eyebrows. Several institutions in the U.S cried foul, contending that restricting plastic bags may lead to higher greenhouse emissions as a result of the production of paper bags.
Besides, the chemical used in the production process pose severe risks if exposed to the environment. Furthermore, countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Spain have established recycling systems for plastic waste, raising questions regarding the effectiveness of a “blanket ban” on plastics.
In Kenya, the representative body for manufacturers, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), have claimed that nearly 600,000 jobs will be lost. However, Judy Wakhungu has protested the “exaggerated figures” by KAM despite a United Nations in the Human Development Index (2017) report, which pegs Kenya’s unemployment at 39.1 percent.
Therefore, in the face of such startling statistics (and pushback), Kenyan lawmakers and environmental activists cannot blindly hope that legislation alone will successfully reduce the use of plastics by consumers, retailers, and manufacturers.
One of the factors that fuelled Rwanda’s successful war over plastics was the long-established Umuganda or national day of cleaning. In 2005, a countrywide campaign was launched to raise awareness regarding the harmful effects witnessed on agriculture production and marine life by plastic pollution.
President Paul Kagame attended the inaugural event (and is known to regularly participate in clean up events), setting the pace for political involvement at all levels of government.
Subsequently, the government commissioned local nonprofits and businesses to come up with suitable alternatives, which also showed their confidence in indigenous solutions.
Despite criticisms from the private sector, the public wholly supported the campaign such that once the plastic ban was enacted in 2008, Rwanda has since then developed a reputation for cleanliness.
Similarly, the #banplasticsKE started by James Wakibia, a photojournalist, in 2015 is a step in the right direction. It is likely that Kenya’s landmark legislation against plastics was partly reinforced by Wakibia’s activities on social media.
However, it might take more than the associated benefits of social media activism to create real change at the grassroots.