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December 19, 2018

Plastic bag makers, Mama Mboga and ‘harassed’ Kenyans rue ban

A trader passes on to a customer packaged bananas inside a plastic paper bag at Uhuru Park in Nairobi before the ban took effect
A trader passes on to a customer packaged bananas inside a plastic paper bag at Uhuru Park in Nairobi before the ban took effect

It is now six months since plastic bags were outlawed in Kenya to fight pollution. The ban took effect on August 28 last year. And grudgingly, Kenyans have adjusted to life without plastic bags.

Former Environment minister Judi Wakhungu, who instituted the ban, said plastics account for around 8 per cent of total waste released into Kenya’s environment, but causes some 90 per cent of pollution, choking land and marine ecosystems.

Just before the ban, plastics manufacturers predicted that thousands of people would be laid off in the factories.

They said small-scale traders like Mama Mboga, who used polythene bags daily, would close their stalls. And corrupt policemen and environment officers would harass Kenyans and drag to jail those who didn’t pay bribes.

The predictions have clearly come to pass.

Moreover, while the ban was implemented through enviable public education campaigns, it has been enforced partly through illegal searches, extortions and scaremongering by the National Environment Management Authority.

Six months into the ban, it is now time to take stock of one of Africa’s most ambitious environment laws.

TRADERS, MANUFACTURERS CRY

Emma Wangari, a 36-year-old vegetable seller in Kangemi market, says there has been no new innovation to support her kind, best known as Mama Mboga.

She buys fresh sukuma wiki and cabbages from farmers, cuts them into small pieces before selling to customers.

The cut-up vegetables are sold for a minimum Sh10 and were previously packaged in transparent plastic bags and displayed for customers.

“Now we don’t cut because there is nowhere to put the vegetables. If we do they will go bad or get dirty,” Wangari says.

She also sells boiled beans and githeri, but plans to quit that business as well.

“For this, unless the customer brings their own containers, we have nowhere else to pack for them,” she says. “There are many times my food goes bad not because I did not have customers, but because they came and I had nothing in which to pack the food.”

Her pain could partly vindicate the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, who claimed the ban would affect the country more negatively than positively.

“We have over 176 plastic manufacturing companies in Kenya, which directly employ 2.89 per cent of all Kenyan employees and indirectly employ over 60,000 people,” KAM said in a statement. “These jobs and livelihoods will be negatively affected.”

Asked whether this has come to pass, they said, “We have about 15 companies that closed down. On average, they laid off about 500 staff earning Sh11 million in monthly wages.

“The reduced number from the estimated job losses made before is as a result of the exemptions made by Nema that cleared continued operations of some plants.”

But Nema chairman John Konchellah is convinced the ban has opened new opportunities for the youths, women and people living with disabilities.

“These bags end up clogging the drainage systems, leading to flooding in major cities in Kenya. Recent studies have found that more than 50 per cent of cattle in peri-urban areas had plastic bags in their rumens,” Konchellah says.

University of Nairobi lecturer Leah Oyake-Ombis says the government must actively make alternative packaging bags cheaper and more readily available.

“This is by getting supermarkets to take more responsibility in increasing the use of biodegradable plastic bags,” she says. “Providing incentives, including tax rebates, to encourage more manufacturers to enter the sector.”

NEMA RAIDS

Nema’s most updated list shows only 1,605 individuals, and companies have a permit to use plastic bags in Kenya.

They range from cake and bread bakers, those who pack eggs, to manufacturers of plastic poles.

Nairobi Environment director Njoki Mukiri says compliance with the ban has hit 90 per cent in the city.

She says the authorities regularly carry out sting operations across the 47 counties to ensure compliance with the law.

In some cases, Kenyans complain that individuals claiming to be Nema officers raid homes and business premises, without court permits, to search for plastics.

Others have reportedly commandeered matatus and ordered passengers to open their bags for any hidden plastics.

But Nema chief inspection officer Robert Orina insists the authority’s inspectors always follow the law during searches.

He says the raids are necessary because many Kenyans are breaking the law, making nonsense of a national initiative to rid the country of plastics.

Orina suspects that plastic bags are still being sneaked in at night, slowing down implementation of the ban.

He spoke when inspectors arrested two businessmen in Nairobi’s Industrial Area and impounded 75 tonnes of illegal plastic bags.

“We got a tip from members of the public that there was an industry that was still having the banned plastic, and we decided to come and inspect the premises,” Orina said.

WHAT LAW SAYS

The law bans “the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging”, which fall into two categories — carrier bags and flat bags.

A carrier bag is one that is “constructed with handles, and with or without gussets”, while a flat bag is one “constructed without handles, and with or without gussets”.

A gusset is defined as an extra piece of material joined with another to make it wider, stronger or more comfortable.

Nema boss Geoffrey Wahungu led the Industrial Area operation with Orina and Njoki Mukiri.

Njoki says despite the challenges and accusations, the public supports the ban.

She says Manish Shah and his brother Shailesh — both directors of Styroplast Limited — were arrested when about five people called Nema to inform them the firm was selling banned polythene bags.

Nairobi’s Burma Market was also temporarily closed three weeks ago because some traders had failed to comply with the ban.

Two days later, all the traders agreed to stop the use of plastics and surrendered all they had in stores.

“We feel compliance has hit 90 per cent in Nairobi, following the closure of Burma. They now do self-regulation,” Njoki said.

The current ban marks the third time Kenya has tried to cut down on the use of the bags in this country, where an estimated 100 million plastic bags used to be given out by supermarkets every year.

These bags were reused and then poorly disposed of on the roadsides, in trenches and illegal dumping sites.

Today, old plastic bags still litter most Kenyan roads and clog sewers and streams, damaging soil and water sources, as well as the animals that consume the plastic.

Supermarkets have now adopted sisal bags, which they sell to customers, reneging on their earlier promise to give them out for free.

ALTERNATIVES QUESTIONABLE

Leah questions some of the alternatives being used, saying they are not the best.

“There are concerns over the lifespan, or degradability, of the bags manufactured in Kenya. My research shows that local bags currently referred to as biodegradable only degrade between 40 per cent-60 per cent instead of completely, after 90 days of being subjected to composting,” she says.

And that was also the problem with plastics: They do not easily degrade. They may break down, but only into smaller pieces. The smaller those pieces get, the more places they can go.

They end up polluting farms, clogging drainage, and littering the sea.

Littered plastic is also a huge problem for the health of wildlife, as many animals ingest it thinking it is food and can have problems thereafter breathing and digesting.

More than 40 other countries around the world have policies to limit plastics use. Costa Rica is working towards banning all single-use plastics by 2021.

Large retail shops in the UK have to charge about Sh8 per plastic bag. But the US has no national ban or tax on plastic bags.

In Africa, about a dozen countries have instituted taxes, full or partial bans on plastic bags, including Mauritania and South Africa, but the most successful has been Rwanda — and now Kenya.

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