Kenya’s Plastic Plague: Banning Thin Plastic Bags is Not Enough | Source: Kanyiva Muindi, Research Officer, African Population & Health Research Center | Oct 8, 2012
In 2007, Kenya banned the use of very thin plastic bags (up to 0.06 millimeters thick) commonly used by grocery stores. It was the culmination of a decade long war waged by environmental conservationists, key among them the late Prof. Wangari Maathai. In early 2012, the government went further, banning the manufacture and importation of very thin plastic bags. While this is an encouraging step by the government, the battle must continue if we are to win the war. Just as Rwanda did four years ago, it is time to totally ban all plastic bags in Kenya.
A walk in most urban and rural neighborhoods bears witness to the challenges of disposing plastic bags. Despite the plastic bag being king in the packaging industry and replacing the once common brown paper bag, the environmental problems it brings are evidenced by the piles of plastic litter on our roadsides and drainage systems.
According to a 2005 study by the National Environment Management Agency (NEMA), United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA), about 100 million plastic bags are freely given to consumers in grocery stores every year and very few of these are recycled or reused. This figure excludes plastic bags used by other traders and those directly purchased by households for home use. Unfortunately, most of these plastics are improperly disposed in dumpsites, along the roadside, and in rivers, or burned. The immediate and long-term effects of improper disposal of plastics are mind-numbing and the challenge to fellow Kenyans is: when shall we start thinking about saving our environment? No foreigner shall help us clean our own house – we must do it ourselves. A few years down the line we will be dealing with plastic waste at the magnitude below or worse.
Our Health on the Line
From a public health point of view, plastics of all sizes, colors and shapes are a long-term health hazard as they are not biodegradable. Instead, they remain in the soil and water releasing toxins such as dioxins, heavy metals and other harmful chemicals used in their manufacture. We have all witnessed heaps of burning plastics in our neighborhoods and perhaps even applauded those ridding the environment of unsightly plastic waste. Burning plastics, however, is one of the most harmful ways of disposal as it releases toxic fumes. Remnant ashes also end up in waterways or the soil eventually contaminating water and plants, and eventually the entire food chain. Contaminated foods end up on our plates and we accumulate these toxins in our bodies leading to possible long-term health complications. Dioxin, a product of the breakdown of plastics, is a potent cancer causing agent (carcinogen). In addition, we need not forget that burning plastics also release carbon monoxide which causes respiratory complications. APHRC is currently undertaking research on the effects of environmental air pollution on the health of residents in urban informal settlements in both indoor and outdoor settings.
In addition to support from government agencies such as NEMA, one may ask; so what can I do and be part of saving our environment and our health? There are several options open to each of us:
- Be ready to forgo convenience:Plastic bags provided in many stores in Kenya have made our fast lives easy. However, we need to consciously go back to our sisal or reed baskets that were so common in the days of our grandparents. They last longer and can be converted into compost alongside other organic residues with no adverse effect on the health of people or the environment. Re-using and recycling will also minimize the amount of plastic bags in circulation.
- Education: Awareness creation on the negative impacts of plastics on human health and the environment is paramount. It is time we introduced this as a subject in schools to raise an environment-conscious generation. However, we must remember that education does not end in class but is a continuous process. With a well-informed society, choking up our rivers will plastic bags and littering the roadsides should be a thing of the past.
- Legislation: Levying fees on the use of plastic bags might encourage the public to use bags made from environmentally-friendly materials such as sisal. Eventually, a total ban on plastic bags might be the way to go.
- Learn from success stories elsewhere: We are always talking about best practices. In four years, Rwanda is plastic free; if they can do it, we can do it even better!
As clearly outlined in the social pillar of the Kenya Vision 2030, waste management is at the forefront of environmental conservation. So far, twenty-four dump sites have been removed, four dump sites rehabilitated and 109 illegal discharge points stopped. Banning plastics is not the long-standing solution to a plastic-free environment. Conscious behavior change will get us to where we want to be. Otherwise, laws implemented to govern an ignorant citizenry will only result in a tedious battle between dumpers and the local government.
The ancient proverb sums it all: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children” (Native American proverb). Say no to plastics, save our planet andgive our children the kind of place they deserve to live.