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January 23, 2019

Recycling, not banning, is the best

A trader selling the alternative bags that are used in place of  Paper bags on August 28 as the ban on plastic bags became effective. /victor imboto
A trader selling the alternative bags that are used in place of Paper bags on August 28 as the ban on plastic bags became effective. /victor imboto

Kenya has banned the manufacture and use of plastic carrier bags and flat bags used for commercial and household packaging. However, the ban does not apply to plastic bags used in primary industrial packaging.

The ban took effect yesterday, August 28. This landmark law has been widely acclaimed, especially by environment and conservation aficionados. The Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program, Erik Solheim, tweeted, “Fantastic news! Kenya bans plastic bags. Congratulations!”

The shining role model for Kenya is Rwanda, which banned the use of plastic bags in 2008. The streets and residential neighbourhoods of Kigali are nearly spotless clean. This is in sharp contrast to Kenya, where public and private spaces are choked in garbage, with plastics being the most visible trash.

The negative impact of plastic bags is indefensible. Here in Nairobi, plastic bags are choking storm drains and strangling our rivers. They litter our streets and precious open public spaces. Plastic bags are an eyesore when they dangle from our trees. In the ocean plastics kill fish, seabirds and other forms of marine life.

Reliable evidence suggests single-use plastics valued at $80-120 billion is lost to the global economy annually. About 32 per cent of plastic packaging is improperly disposed of, generating unknown but staggering costs by fouling water systems and damaging urban infrastructure. The production of plastics is also associated with emission of greenhouse gases.

We have demonised plastic bags. Hence, on the face of it, the ban in Kenya is the right thing to do. But the real demon dwells in the revolting levels of corruption and dysfunction in urban governance. Waste management is private and unregulated. Waste is not sorted and disposal is run by greedy cartels that have politicians in their pockets.

Such chaos hampers the development of effective after-use systems and effective environments for innovation. Hence, there is another side to the plastic bags saga. An opportunity beckons; through efficient management of plastics we can achieve better outcomes, for the economy and the environment, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of plastic packaging.

The opportunity is the ‘circular economy’, a term not well known a few years ago but it has stirred imagination globally, as a practical alternative to the current linear take-make-dispose economic model. At the heart of the circular economy idea is the fact that circularity must be a concrete driver of production innovation and value creation in the 21st century.

The material savings potential of the circular economy is estimated at about a $1 trillion annually. Studies have shown that in Europe 53 per cent of plastic packaging can be recycled in an ecologically efficient way. The job creation potential across the circular economy value chain exceeds a million in the European Union.

The trade-off is loss of the opportunity to create a new industrial system that is restorative and regenerative. Thousands of new products and millions of quality, durable jobs could be created. And yes, reusable plastics could reduce demand for finite raw materials and save the planet.

Alex O Awiti is the director of the East African Institute at Aga Khan University

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