The return of single-use plastics six years after ban

plastic ban, plastic bags, plastic pollution

A trader sells oranges packed in clear polythene bags in Nakuru Town on October 2, 2017. The 2017 gazette notice that banned the manufacture and use of single use plastics slapped a Sh400,000 fine on anyone caught in violation. 


What you need to know:

  • The 2017 gazette notice that banned the manufacture and use of single use plastics slapped a Sh400,000 fine on anyone caught in violation. 
  •  The National Environmental Authority (Nema) says 80 per cent of the public has complied with the ban, implying that there is another lot of 20 per cent that is yet to conform to the set laws.

Haile Selassie Avenue is a busy street. At rush hour, pedestrians, hawkers and vehicles compete for space, each trying to push the other out of the way. In the traffic jam, a passenger in a matatu beckons to a hawker to bring her some tomatoes. The hawker quickly pulls out a single-use plastic bag, throws the tomatoes inside and hands the bag over to the passenger. It’s a very quick and short interaction, but what’s evident is the calmness with which the hawker used the plastic bag in plain sight of a police officer a few metres away. It’s even more puzzling how calmly the passenger received the bag from the hawker without a word, her face revealing no emotions. Single use plastic bags such as the one used to package the tomatoes are illegal in Kenya, yet no one seemed bothered by why the hawker had them or why the passenger accepted the bag. Not even the police officer.

In 2017, Kenya implemented one of the most stringent laws on the manufacturing or possession of single-use plastic bags, a move that caught the attention of the world and stole the limelight in the international press. 

The Guardian reported “Kenya-brings in worlds toughest plastic bag ban” while the New York Times said, “In Kenya, selling or importing plastic bag will cost you…”

In fact, the New York Times wrote an editorial piece urging the world to follow Kenya’s lead on the plastic bags ban.

And as Kenya joins other nations in celebrating the World Environment Day, beating plastic pollution, which is this year’s theme, is still a challenge for the country. The 2017 gazette notice that banned the manufacture and use of single use plastics slapped a Sh400,000 fine on anyone caught in violation. 

 The National Environmental Authority (Nema) says 80 per cent of the public has complied with the ban, implying that there is another lot of 20 per cent that is yet to conform to the set laws.

Though the ban on single-use plastic bags was internationally acclaimed, these carrier bags have resurfaced and they are conspicuous in the streets as regulators seem to be going slow on crackdowns.

Since 2018, there have been cases of traders arrested using the banned bags, with the latest crackdown happening last month where a number of traders were arrested for non-compliance with the law.

It is believed that the plastic bags are being smuggled in from neighbouring Uganda since currently there are no factories making them locally. Nema says it is doing the best it can to keep those bags off the streets.

“We don’t have any company manufacturing these bags in the country, so we have intensified patrols along the Kenya-Uganda border and are also working with other government agencies to ensure these bags don’t get into the country,” said Moses Ombogo, Nema’s Enforcement Officer, during a recent crackdown. 

Kenya’s port of Mombasa is a gateway to many landlocked countries such as Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan, whose cargo pass through the facility, opening the country up to risks of dumping of the single use plastics. In East Africa, Rwanda had and continues to have a 100 per cent success rate of compliance to the law. 

Before the 2017 ban, the plastic industry distributed nearly 100 million plastic shopping bags every month mainly to retail outlets, which significantly contributed to pollution in the country. Activists were also up in arms after attempts by the American Chemistry Council to sneak the plastics back in through the US-Kenya Free Trade Agreement, where there was a clause that would allow Kenya to be used as an entry point for plastic waste dumping. Experts have argued that using Kenya as an entry point for plastic bags will undermine the efforts in the fight against the ban and increase pollution in the region. 

 “Trade deal that allows the importation of plastics into Africa through Kenya will threaten these efforts and many other efforts by African countries,” said Greenpeace.  

The condition was part of the reciprocal measures that the US wanted to be implemented as one of the conditions for the free trade deal where Kenya would enjoy duty-free exports to America. 

The resurfacing of plastic bags comes at a time when the United Nations say plastic pollution could reduce by 80 per cent by 2040 if countries and companies make deep policy and market shifts using existing technologies.

According to a new report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) titled Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy, three market shifts that can cut plastic use have been proposed. These three measures include reusing plastic bags, recycling and reorienting and diversifying products. 

“The way we produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks for human health and destabilising the climate,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP executive-director.

UNEP argues that promoting reuse options including refillable bottles, bulk dispensers, deposit-return-schemes and packaging take-back schemes can reduce 30 per cent of plastic pollution by 2040 and urges governments to help build a stronger business case for reusable goods.

So far, Kenya has banned the use of single-use plastic bottles in protected areas such as reserves and national parks, but environmental activists argue that the move should be expanded to all other areas in order to curb the menace of plastic pollution.

According to the UN, recycling plastic will reduce pollution by an additional 20 per cent by 2040 if recycling becomes a more stable and profitable venture. 

“Removing fossil fuels subsidies, enforcing design guidelines to enhance recyclability, and other measures would increase the share of economically recyclable plastics from 21 to 50 per cent,” says the report.

The report also proposes reorienting plastic by careful replacement of products such as plastic wrappers, sachets and takeaway items with products made from alternative materials such as paper or compostable materials, arguing that it can deliver an additional 17 per cent cut in plastic pollution. The UN warns that even with the stated measures, 100 million tonnes of plastics from single-use and short-lived products will still need to be safely dealt with annually by 2040 – together with a significant legacy of existing plastic pollution. 
This, it says, can be addressed by setting and implementing design and safety standards for disposing of non-recyclable plastic waste, and by making manufacturers responsible for products shedding microplastics, among others. The report says a shift to a circular economy would result in $1.27 trillion in savings, considering costs and recycling revenues. 

“A further $3.25 trillion would be saved from avoided externalities such as health, climate, air pollution, marine ecosystem degradation, and litigation-related costs. This shift could also result in a net increase of 700,000 jobs by 2040, mostly in low-income countries, significantly improving the livelihoods of millions of workers in informal settings,” says the UN.

The report recommends that a global fiscal framework could be part of international policies to enable recycled materials to compete on a level playing field with virgin materials, create an economy of scale for solutions and establish monitoring systems and financing mechanisms.

The second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment (INC-2) took place from May 29 to June 2, 2023 at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Headquarters in Paris, France.

The meeting of the global leaders wants to reach an agreement on the ways of eliminating the plastic menace the world over in the wake of climate change, that poses a serious peril to the globe.