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Kenya says no plastic bags

Bettina Thoma-Schade
August 28, 2018

A year ago, Kenya banned plastic bags and introduced the toughest rules in the book to punish anyone caught making, selling or using them. Have these measures worked?

A young African man holds a sign that says ##ISupportBanPlasticsKE
Image: James Wakibia

In 2013, student and photographer James Wakibia was so sick of seeing the plastic bags that littered the route between his house and the town of Nakuru, some 150 kilometers northwest of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, he felt he had to take action.

"They were everywhere, in the trees, in the puddles and on the road. They were like air, just everywhere," he recalls.

Two years later, he launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #ISupportBanPlasticsKE, calling for an end to single-use plastic bags.  Wakibia's activism attracted widespread attention, including from the government in Nairobi, which put a ban at the top of its to-do list.

Plastic carrier bags and their smaller, thinner counterparts used for packaging fruit and vegetables have now been outlawed for a year.

Read more: Plastic fantastic: Nigeria's carrier bag fashionistas

"Kenya has come a long way and has taken a very bold step," Wakibia said. "Most other governments don't dare to take this step because they are very connected to the industry."

A rural fence with plastic bags caught on it
It was such sights that spurred James Wakibia into actionImage: James Wakibia

Anyone violating the plastic bag law — the strictest of its kind in the world — faces a maximum penalty of €32,000 euros ($37,000) or a jail term of up to four years.

Police work closely with the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) to enforce the rules, and so far, officials say, patrols of streets and markets have led to around 100 manufacturers and sellers being arrested and fined.

A big step divides opinion

Until this time last year, the bags that have now been written out of quotidian existence were widely used, especially at places like Nairobi's bustling Kangemi market where traders sell everything from fruit and veg to clothing.

The recyclable  fabric totes that now hang on each stall are 10 times the price of their illegal plastic predecessors. Many customers bring their own bags or carry their goods in buckets instead.

For Wilfred Mwiti, who regularly shops at the market, the plastic bag ban isn't a problem. On the contrary.

Read more: Plastic in oceans causing coral reefs to get sick, study says

"I'm okay with the ban and my feeling is that the government should work out a way in which the remaining bags could be eliminated," he said, referring to packaging on individual food items.

But not everyone has embraced the new rules with such enthusiasm. Although she acknowledges the environmental benefits of the law, sweet-potato vendor Martha Ndinda is still struggling with the new reality.

 Market traders and shoppers
Traders and shoppers alike have had to rethink the way they go about their daily businessImage: Bettina Thoma-Schade

"I used to sell sweet potatoes in plastic bags, they were packed in plastic bags for them to remain fresh. But now they're becoming dry so fast," she said.

Unwrapped unemployment

The biggest critic of the ban is the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM). Prior to the new rules, the country was home to 170 plastic-producing companies that employed almost 3 percent of the Kenyan workforce.

Sachen Gudka, who runs a label-manufacturing company, is chairman of KAM and one of the country's most influential businessmen.

He says a lot of companies, which received no government compensation following the ban, had to close in its wake, and that around 60,000 jobs were lost as a result, directly and indirectly. He would have liked to see the legislation phased in more gradually. 

"Kenya used to have a thriving economy in terms of plastic bags to the neighboring countries, all those export earnings have now been lost to Kenya," Gudka said.

The future is recycling

Betty Nzioka of NEMA, is hoping those neighboring countries will soon follow Kenya's lead, resulting in "a collective ban across East Africa."

A sprawling waste site littered with plastic
Plastic dumped on waste sites like these is easily blown about and ends up in waterways and in places where it is ingested by unsuspecting animalsImage: James Wakibia

Until that happens, the authorities will continue to face challenges, such as the illegal import of plastic bags from countries such as Uganda.

On the whole however, Nzioka is pleased with public willingness to accept the changes, and welcomes the upshot of cleaner streets and fewer plastic bags turning up in fishing nets  and cows' stomachs.

Wakibia, meanwhile, would like to see the ban expanded to include further products, like bread packaging.

"Many are exempt from the ban of plastic bags," he said. "My call is to ban all single-use plastic, like plastic straws."

That's a move that wouldn't be popular with KAM.

James Wakibia
Having helped to bring about a plastic bag ban, James Wakibia wants the government to implement more ambitious rulesImage: James Wakibia

"When we talk about banning plastic, we need to talk about what are the viable alternatives and cost effective alternatives," Gudka said. "There aren't many, to be honest."

Read moreEU unveils plan to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030

In the case of bread, he cites wax paper as a substitute, but so far only one Kenyan company produces it. And launching the manufacture of more eco-friendly packaging products requires capital investment Gudka says most companies simply can't afford.

He suggests reusing what's already out there. "Let's embrace the collection, recycling, upcycling aspect and create a viable circular economy around the whole issue."

Wakibia is now working with activists from Zambia and Sudan on a forward strategy. Because even though his route into Nakuru is now largely free of plastic bags, he knows the broader issue is far from solved.