Plastic bags on the way out across Africa
John Onyango lives in Nairobi, Kenya's capital. As he comes out of a downtown supermarket on an afternoon in October, the 61-year-old mechanic is carrying fruit in a recyclable cloth bag. Just two months ago, he said, commodities from the same store used to be packed in plastic bags.
Since August 28, the use, production and import of plastic bags have been prohibited in the East African country. The ban targets mainly bags that used to be handed out by shops, but does not apply to packaged goods or garbage bags. In doing so, Kenya follows the example of several African countries that previously banned or restricted the use of plastic bags due to their disastrous ecological impact. The measure is drastic: offenders face fines up to $38,000 and imprisonment for up to four years.
This is not the first time Kenya has tried to ban plastic bags. Over the last 10 years, the country has attempted but failed to implement the measure three times. However, thanks to massive information campaigns and greater public awareness, the law is now supported by the population.
Indeed, plastic has become a public health issue. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Kenyan supermarkets hand out up to 100 million plastic bags a year, half of which end up in the wild due to a lack of waste management infrastructure. In 2016, a total of 24 tons of plastic waste were collected in the lake at Nakuru National Park, pointing to a serious health and ecological crisis.
Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources Judi Wakhungu said the ban was aimed not only at fighting pollution, but also at protecting the health of the country's citizens.
The fight against plastic pollution is also a global issue that goes far beyond Kenya's borders. Indeed, 8 million tons of plastic end up every year in seas and oceans. UNEP estimates that, at the current pace, there will be more plastic waste than fish in the oceans by 2050, with irreversible consequences for the marine ecosystem.
"It takes more than 50 years for a plastic bag to degrade. They represent a major danger to wildlife. Many animals die after ingesting plastic bags when drinking water from rivers or lakes," said Geoffrey Wahungu, Director General of Kenya National Environment Management Authority.
UNEP Executive Director Erik Solheim said Kenya had just taken a "gigantic step." However, the ban is not to everybody's liking.
Three days before the law came into force, the High Court of Kenya rejected a complaint from importers of plastic bags, which argued the ban would mean significant job losses. According to the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, the country has more than 176 plastic manufacturing companies, which directly employ 2.89 percent of Kenya's active labor force.
But the availability of ecological alternatives seems to have changed the situation. In markets, bags made of banana or bamboo fibers are now available for between $0.5 and $3, depending on the size and market's location. Moreover, with a growing number of options available to customers, prices for these environment-friendly bags are slowly dropping. This is a relief for consumers like John Onyango. "I was a bit concerned when they announced the law, but the government's initiative is good. And as long as there are alternatives, I am fine with it," he said.
Entrepreneurs, too, can benefit. "A number of local companies were quick to convert to the manufacture of biodegradable packaging and view the ban positively. There are few competitors at the moment, so this represents an excellent business opportunity," explained Wahungu. He added, however, that feasibility studies have yet to be carried out on other alternatives and that this may take some time. "In other words, we need to think about other pilot initiatives. Eliminating more than 100 million plastic bags a year is far from easy."
By passing the law, Kenya joined the ranks of some 15 African countries that have banned or restricted the use of plastic bags, including Rwanda, one of the pioneers of banning plastic bags not only on the continent, but also in the world.
As early as 2004, the country banned the use of plastic as packaging in shops, and launched tax breaks to encourage manufacturers of recycle plastic. Four years later, the country imposed a total ban on non-biodegradable polythene bags. This has earned Kigali, the Rwandan capital, the title of "Best African Capital" by the United Nations Human Settlements Program in 2008. Today, the country is one of the cleanest in Africa.
This success can be explained to some extent by policies aimed at fostering inclusive awareness. In Rwanda, "every citizen has a right to a healthy and satisfying environment," but must also assume the responsibility of "protecting, safeguarding and promoting it," according to a government decree issued in 2008.
If such bans may seem drastic, they are obviously effective. At border crossing points, agents of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority check the luggage of all incoming travelers in the country, and confiscate all plastic bags. At Kigali International Airport, a giant sign announces that "the use of non-biodegradable polythene bags is prohibited." All visitors, without exception, must comply with the ban.
Following Rwanda's initiative, East African Legislative Assembly, a sub-organ of the larger East African Community, adopted similar legislation in June, which still awaits ratification by the member states. Implementation of the law in Kenya will, without doubt, give a new impetus to the efforts to finally rid the region of plastic bags.