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PLASTICS DEBATE

The ban on plastic bags is a wicked problem

In Summary

• It is estimated that globally, 8 trillion metric tons of plastic leak into our natural spaces annually

• A research study found that reusable grocery bags are a breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria

A trader holding on to his load of the newly introduced Eco-friendly reusable bags along Haile Selassie Avenue, Nairobi following the ban on plastic bags by the Government effective on August 28,2017.
PLASTIC BAN: A trader holding on to his load of the newly introduced Eco-friendly reusable bags along Haile Selassie Avenue, Nairobi following the ban on plastic bags by the Government effective on August 28,2017.
Image: COURTESY

“Just one word: Plastics”. This is a scene in the 1967 movie The Graduate, starring Benjamin Braddock.

At the age of 21, he had just graduated college. His parents were upper-middle class Americans, and they desired that he also succeeds in life. So, they peppered him with encouragements and career suggestions.

In this scene, their middle-aged neighbor tells Ben that a really viable future career would be in Just one word: plastics. Ben was of the hippie generation that was determined to abandon conformities and material obsessions of their parents’ generation. The hippies wanted to ‘find themselves’ and ‘do their own thing’.

That entailed disavowing materialism. Ben was thus justifiably appalled with his neighbor’s suggestion, because plastic for his generation, represented everything they resented. For the older generation, it represented fortune and modernity, but for Ben’s generation, it stood for all that was ersatz.

This ‘one word’ echoed other words spoken 60 years earlier that were, “unless I am very much mistaken, this invention will prove important in the future”. And with those words, Bakelite was invented.

The first plastic bag was made in Belgium in 1907 by a chemist called Leo Baekeland, who at the age of 20 years had a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Ghent.

Leo built a home laboratory in his parents’ house to indulge his love of tinkering with chemicals. In July of that year, as he was experimenting with formaldehyde and phenol, he invented the first fully synthetic plastic. He called it Bakelite. The tag line for the Bakelite Corporation was ‘the material for a thousand uses with unlimited boundaries.’

And since then, its uses have ranged from cellphones, guns, jewelry and even the atomic bomb. The fourth kingdom, after it became obvious that through Bakelite, humans had transcended the old taxonomy of animal, mineral and vegetable classification, had arrived.

Today, Leo’s and Ben’s neighbor’s words have never rang truer. According to a 2017 research done by The Business Research Company, the global economy for plastic products was worth USD 1.1 trillion. However, this success has brought with it serious environmental problems.

It is estimated that globally, 8 trillion metric tons of plastic leak into our natural spaces annually because they are not biodegradable. Consequently, most of it ends up in the oceans choking marine life, and in landfills where they contaminate soil and water. They also clog drains and end up creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other pests,thus increasing the transmission of vector-borne diseases like malaria.

In other cases, the plastics are consumed by livestock which then finds its way into the food chain.

Indeed, the environmental problem caused by plastic disposal is unquestionable, and in response, several countries have banned the use of single use plastics. Bangladesh became the first country to impose the ban in 2002. To date, 62 more countries have followed suit with Kenya drawing this line on the sand in 2017.

But begs the question, has this effective and welcome policy created a wicked problem? A wicked problem is one where the effort to solve one aspect of a problem creates other inadvertent problems. Allow me to explain.

First it is an anomaly to call them single use bags. These bags are used more than once as trash bags, to carry one’s lunch or gym kit, or in some extreme cases, as school bags, before they are discarded.

Secondly, a research study done in 2010 by the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University in California, found that reusable grocery bags are a breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria such as E.coli posing a serious risk to public health.

They become contaminated by food juices, moisture, dirt and heat. This is because users do not wash their reusable bags in between their shopping trips, yet the bag travels from your house, to your car or matatu, to the shopping cart, the conveyor belt and back to your kitchen counter.

To illustrate this, the Beaverton soccer team in Oregon, USA shared cookies from a reusable grocery bag in October 2010. The following day seven team members fell sick from stomach flu. Investigations traced an outbreak of norovirus to the reusable grocery bag that contained the shared cookies.

Begs another question, will the public health problems that the reusable grocery bags are likely to cause, be far greater than the problem of environmental pollution, that the ban on plastic intends to resolve? Is the nation adequately prepared to respond, should a new public health outbreak caused by contamination of reusable grocery bags, occurs?

E. coli, one of the bacteria commonly found in reusable grocery bags can cause pneumonia. In 2016, according to an assessment of healthcare delivery in Kenya undertaken by the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA), pneumonia accounted for 11.2 per cent of deaths in the country. Additionally, Kenya has 0.25 medical officers per 10,000 people against the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 3.0 medical officers per 10,000 people. In absolute terms, in the year 2015, the shortage of general practitioners was 3,801, while the respective shortfalls in clinical officers and nurses was at 6,696 and 40,468, respectively. Undoubtedly, a reusable grocery bag related outbreak would only increase the disease burden in already overstretched health facilities in the country.

I therefore submit that, to ensure that the ban on plastics does not evolve into a public health wicked problem, NEMA should work jointly with the Ministries of Health and Education to raise the awareness of the hidden dangers lurking in reusable grocery bags. Some of the messages they should educate users on, is the need to modify behavior to ensure that they wash and disinfect their reusable bags after each shopping trip; to use separate reusable bags for raw meats, poultry or fish from dry goods to avoid cross contamination; to clean the surfaces where they place their bags to remove any possible traces of bacteria collected enroute; and to store bags in sanitary locations that are also clean and dry.

If this joint collaboration does not happen, banning single use plastic bags will be akin to mopping the floor while the roof is still leaking.