On a quiet Friday evening in Nyalenda, Kisumu County, 30-year-old Andrew Omollo is busy sorting garbage collected from 10 houses he takes care of in preparation for disposal.
He ensures he separates baby diapers from other household waste.
As a caretaker, he must ensure the compounds remain clean by organising garbage collection or burning the waste every week.
It takes a while for all the waste to be reduced to ash. The diapers, however, are left for disposal at night.
“We throw them along the roads and in the backyards and because they do not decompose, some always end up in sewers,” he admits.
Burning them using kerosene is not easy, because of the nature of the raw material used in making them.
Throwing them out or transporting them to the nearby Kachok dumpsite are the only solutions.
“In such cases, we wait till nightfall before we can throw away the waste in various prohibited locations. Many landlords here cannot afford to transport the household garbage to the main dumpsite,” he says.
The disposal of diapers is a major headache for many households in the rural and urban centres, while some county governments have not come up with a solution.
In early 2000, when baby diapers had just arrived in Kenyan shops, the demand for the product was generally low.
A 2012 report, Baby Diapers Market - Middle East, Africa, and India, Industry Scenario, Size, Share, Value Chain Analysis & Forecast, 2011-2017, said that out of 70,000 babies born in Kenya every year, only four per cent were using diapers.
Pampers, which was the most common diaper brand on the market at the time, was believed to be a commodity only consumed by middle-class families and not many people were using the diapers.
By 2013, however, the diaper market had shot to Sh2.5 trillion, prompting other manufacturers to join in to satisfy the growing demand.
Kenyan shoppers now have more than 10 brands to choose from.
In the 2021-22 budget, Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani announced that imports of raw materials for the manufacture of baby diapers would be duty-free for the next year.
Mr Yatani said baby diapers are essential products and should therefore be supplied at affordable prices.
While the duty-free nature of the product has lowered its cost, making it more affordable and readily available to low and middle-class families, their disposal has been a major headache in Kenya.
The middle and upper classes can pay a garbage collector to collect and transport the waste to the Kachok dumpsite.
This, however, is not a permanent remedy as the indecomposable material continues to pile up at the site without any environment-friendly remedy.
For slum residents, burning the waste or collecting it for garbage collectors are the only options.
Previously, many slum dwellers would dispose of used diapers in pit latrines, which would fill up faster.
Ms Elizabeth Atieno, a resident of Nyamasaria revealed in an interview that her landlord had warned that garbage collectors would only be dealing with decomposable domestic waste.
“We are required to burn them after use, but what happens to those who cannot afford kerosene? Throwing them out is the only remedy,” she says.
Some garbage collectors have also been blamed by residents for throwing the waste into seasonal rivers, which then sweep it into rivers and later into Lake Victoria.
Ms Atieno says most of the used diapers thrown carelessly in the open sometimes end up being shredded by stray dogs. And when it rains, they are washed down to nearby streams, posing a health risk.
“Some of the waterborne diseases result from poorly disposed baby diapers. It is time we found a permanent solution, which will be a major challenge in our country in the coming years,” Ms Atieno says.
“The diaper companies have saved us from using napkins, which require a lot of washing and airing out in the sun, unlike companies dealing with plastics. However, they have failed to make it clear how the material should be handled after use.”
Though some environmental activists have raised awareness on the impact of plastic pollution, not much has been done to end the menace.
On September 24, the Kenya Environmental Action Network, in partnership with the Kisumu Environmental Champions, held the International Climate Strike in Kisumu to draw attention to historical injustices on climate and the environment.
The activists said baby diapers, which are non-biodegradable, often end up in rivers and later in freshwater lakes and harm aquatic life.
“We will continue with the strikes until our county governments wake up to action,” said Mr Kevin Mtai, one of the organisers.
Similar strikes have been held in Eldoret, Nairobi, Voi and Mombasa following concerns about plastic and diaper pollution on the environment.
Tom Togo, the Kisumu County boss for the environment watchdog Nema, says everyone is to blame for environmental pollution, including users, county governments and policymakers.
He says while it is the role of county governments to provide garbage disposal methods for residents, this has not been the case when it comes to diaper disposal.
At the moment, all the solid waste in Kisumu ends up at Kachok dumpsite while diapers pile up every time garbage trucks empty the waste.
Mr Togo says the indecomposable waste is always mixed with other household rubbish, making its management even more difficult.
“The waste generators are charged with the responsibility of segregating the waste before emptying it into the dust bin but that never happens,” he says.
“The Kisumu County government has not made any effort to have baby diapers disposed of in an environmentally friendly way,” he adds.
For better disposal procedures, counties should provide well-labelled bins specifically for diapers, suggests Mr Togo.
“The generators, who are the nursing mothers, will then be entrusted with the responsibility of separating the waste before dumping it in bins to avoid mixing it up with decomposable waste,” he says.
The waste can then be transported to a central place where it will be incinerated to ensure it is destroyed.
“During a recent clean-up at the Nanga bridge, which also channels its water into Lake Victoria, we were shocked at the volume of diapers found dumped in the area,” Mr Togo says.
That, he says, means that residents of Nyamasaria, Nyalenda and Manyatta in Kisumu are throwing used diapers in their backyards only for them to be swept into rivers after heavy rains.
Rural areas have not been spared either. According to Mr Togo, most households throw used diapers in pit latrines, which get filled faster, while some throw them on farms and along roads.
He also said daycare centres are major diaper generators in the city.
“We are working on ensuring every daycare centre is equipped with bins, which will be used to collect used baby diapers. We also want to ensure every garbage collector has a serial number, which will be used to confirm if they dropped the diapers at the required site,” he says.
But he still feels this is not enough.
“In my opinion, diapers should be banned in the country as the users and the country governments have failed to manage the waste well, and so it remains a major environmental pollutant,” he says.