Why Kenyans must dispose of plastic bags

Friday August 25 2017

The Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) has

The Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) has approved several materials to be used as alternative packaging after the ban on plastic bags in August. PHOTO | FILE | AFP 

By PAULINE KAIRU
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Kenyans with stocks of polythene bags may declare them to the county governments, take them to supermarkets or wait for official communication on alternative drop-off points—but they must dispose them before the Monday ban.

“If you have any plastic in your house, please declare it to the municipal authorities,” said Environment Principal Secretary Charles Sunkuli on Thursday.

National Environment Management Authority Director-General Geoffrey Wahungu said Nema would give alternative collection points.

“We are setting up a take-back scheme and are requesting supermarkets to be in charge of the take-back, from where licensed recyclers or any other people involved in the cleanup of plastics can pick up the bags,” Prof Wahungu told participants at a forum held at Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) in Nairobi.

The Nema boss said declared stocks will not be incinerated but recycled.

Usable

“We’ll take everything we have and convert it into something usable—like having them woven into kiondo (bags) that can last for many years,” he said, adding that the countrywide cleanup could take even three years.

The forum heralded an exhibition on eco-friendly alternatives to polythene bags and was hosted by Environment Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu.

The two officers were among panellists comprising implementers of the plastic bag ban and other industry stakeholders.

From Monday next week, anyone found with a carrier or flat plastic polythene bag will be liable to a fine of not less than Ksh4 million ($38,700) or serve a jail term not shorter than four years.

Prof Wahungu said supermarkets had agreed to gradually phase out the free polythene bags at all retail stores in readiness for the ban and ease Kenyans into the new regime of packaging.

Meanwhile, the glaring wedge between the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) and the State agencies reared its head once again. 

Manufacturers

KAM sectors manager Samuel Matonda took issue with the way the government agencies had handled the matter. He said plastic bag manufacturers were still not ready with alternatives but had not been given ample time to make the transition.

“Plastics, which are being targeted, make up less than 5 per cent of the solid waste,” said Mr Matonda and wondered: “Why not go the holistic waste management way instead of targeting a small industry?”

He added: “Details on which bags are exempt keep changing everyday on the Nema website. It is confusing to the manufacturers and the public. We need to have this gazetted so that it is legally binding and so that we know which factories will close down come Monday.”

Mr Matonda accused Nema of wavering in communicating details of the ban on its website, and creating uncertainty and confusion.

“We’re not at war,” said Mr Matonda. “We’re not going against the cleanup of the environment or the ban on plastics; we just want more time, so that those plastic producers with stocks can finish it.”

KAM has filed a case in the High Court challenging the ban, saying it would hurt consumers and suppliers. But the government has said it will not give any more extensions.

“Manufacturers are ready to close the factories on Monday,” said Mr Matonda. “I am sure they have made arrangements if nothing will change. Many have notified their workers that they’re going to close as from Monday.”

Job loss

KAM has constantly complained about the heavy investment and jobs that will be lost due to the ban.

It is estimated that the industry directly employs more than 80,000 people. 

Ms Jacqueline Mugo, the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE) executive director, while admitting that the ban will benefit the environment, argued that questions lingered about what the ban would portend for the thousands of workers in the industry.

“We know we’re polluting the environment with polythene bags and we’re not disposing of plastic properly,” Ms Mugo conceded. “Most rivers are clogged with plastic bags, especially in the city.

“It’s difficult to say that, come Monday, we’ll be ready—because of the many questions around the industry about loss of jobs. These uncertainties and other issues are yet to be resolved. It’s a conversation that as a country we need to have so that we effect the ban in a way that does not hurt any side.”

The Nema boss accused KAM of attempting to derail the ban while a section of plastic producers had agreed to comply and even begun the transition to manufacturing alternative eco-friendly packaging materials.

Ready to transition

Transition

Retail Trade Association of Kenya (Retrak) chief executive officer Wambui Mbarire said retail stores were ready to transition and would deal with the challenges as they went along.

“The carrier bags...we don’t have a problem with that; it’s pretty easy and we are ready for that,” said Ms Mbarire. “The flat bag is what we’re still looking at...the alternative innovations available. There’s a gap there.”

She noted that the ‘kadogo’ (small-scale) economy would be most affected by the lack of a flat-bag alternative.

Exhibitors showcased a range of alternatives—from the traditional kiondo to non-wooven bags, biodegradable plastic-look-alike bags, woollen, paper bags and papyrus baskets. 

However, Prof Wahungu said biodegradable bags will not be allowed because of their mistakable resemblance to polythene bags.

“We don’t want to bring in something that we can’t tell apart from what we’re trying to rid the environment of,” said Prof Wahungu, adding: “We have no problem with biodegradable bin liners because we don’t have a solution yet.”