The looming ban on plastic bags in September is causing ripples in the Kenyan economy. Plastic packaging manufacturers have started laying off workers.
The Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) has warned that the ban might lead to the loss of thousands of jobs; a dire prognosis for a country whose unemployment rate hovers at around 40 per cent according to the 2017 United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) report.
This situation provides an opportunity to interrogate what are now common concepts in development /environment literature: ‘brown job losses’ and ‘green jobs creation’.
The layoffs are brown job losses. They have happened because the plastic packaging industry emits too much greenhouse gases. But no one is talking about green jobs- those that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions - that the ban might create.
The KAM has proposed a fiscal solution to plastic packaging: a brown solution where plastic bags and the jobs they create will remain as an environment levy is charged on manufacturers and users.
Environmental policy makers have put forward arguments in support of the ban; that plastics are produced from petroleum oil that could be put to better use; emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere during production; litter the physical environment upon consumption- arguments that may not mean much to those who have lost jobs.
Context is important in the story of plastics.
Plastics are an integral part of the Kenyan economy. The manufacturing industry, which is one of Kenya’s Vision 2030 pillars, is dominated by food processing, which in turn is the largest consumer of plastic packaging material.
With this kind of economy, Kenya, unlike global economies like the US and China whose industries emit the largest volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere seems wired into the much-touted green economy. A ban on plastics is the classic ‘burning-of-boats’ situation; one that leaves no room for failure since we are gambling with all we have.
The plastic packaging industry the world over has two options: come up with new environment friendly packaging materials that decompose fast and in the process maintain the current ‘use and dispose’ model, or promote the use of natural fibres that will be used longer and decompose fast after disposal. Both have merits and demerits. Promoting the use of natural fibres makes economic sense for developing countries like Kenya. We once had natural fibre packaging solutions that provided employment.
Natural fibre packaging solutions, unlike plastics, will not release too much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The shift to green packaging will lead to resource efficient economies. Promoting its use globally will increase the global competitiveness of developing agri-based economies and secure the well-being of future generations wherever they will be on the globe.