On August 28, Kenya began to enforce a ban on manufacture, use, importation and sale of non-recyclable plastic carry bags. The ban has been described as the world’s toughest, with a penalty of four years in jail or Sh4 million fine.
This is the third attempt in the past 10 years. Other African countries that have instituted a similar national ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags include Rwanda, Eritrea and Mauritania.
Environment CS Judy Wakhungu told the BBC, “Plastic bags now constitute the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya. This has become our environmental nightmare that we must defeat by all means.”
Her sentiments come at a time when an estimated 24 million plastic bags are used every month. Plastic pollution poses a “near permanent contamination of natural environment globally. The carriers of plastic bags litter most roadsides and clog sewers and streams, hurting marine life.
Quite often, we have experienced floods in our towns and cities owing to obstruction of our sewer systems by polyethylene bags. Unep says huge amounts of polythene bags are pulled out of livestock in Nairobi’s abattoirs — as many as 20 bags per cow — raising fears of plastic contamination in beef.
Research has shown that plastic bags take between 20 and 1,000 years to biodegrade. Although manufacturers have argued that 80,000 jobs could be lost, the issue is very much around biting the bullet and walking through the eye of a needle.
The challenge has been developing alternative materials for plastic bags. It is emerging that traditional knowledge has a great potential in offering solutions to the challenges of the ban.
Recently a form three student from Materi Girls’ Centre in Tharaka Nithi county, Hilda Gacheri, made a ‘banana bag’ to carry her books and personal effects to school. She learnt how to do this from her grandfather. Gacheri has attracted attention from across the Kenyan divide and is now poised to be an environment ambassador.
There are few young people today who are keen to learn from people such as Gacheri. Her experience has shown us the extent to which we have become so deeply disconnected from the natural world and our cultural roots. This was demonstrated by the supermarket attendants who refused to touch her “banana bag”.
Hilda had to pack all her shopping on her own. The women at the local market thought she was a witch. They ordered her to throw away the bag. Her schoolmates scolded at her and thought she was behaving funny.
It is a pity how we have become slaves of the Western industrialised thinking, which to a certain extent is the genesis of the current global crisis. We have been schooled to believe that solutions to our challenges can only be found in Western technology and not in our own ancient wisdom.
We need a paradigm shift in our mindset to develop confidence in ourselves to reconnect with our natural world and our cultural roots.
In his book The Great Work ( 1999 ), Thomas Berry implores us to restore the people’s deep sense of connectedness to nature and all the life-forms as a way of sustaining and taking greater care of the planet Earth on which we live.
Simon Mitambo is the general coordinator and CEO, African Biodiversity Network