Last week, enthusiastic shoppers rushed for bargains when one of the leading supermarket chains opened a new branch in Nairobi with cut price offers.
Customers carried home their goods in plastic carrier bags oblivious of the dangers they posed to the environment.
Most shoppers and supermarkets in Kenya have ignored the calls to reduce the use of polythene bags by using recyclable or biodegradable shopping bags.
The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) says the flimsy plastic shopping bags which are discarded after a single use are not only an eye -sore in major urban centres but also pose a serious environmental hazard since they are not biodegradable.
But a new technology from Britain that has been made available to plastic manufacturers in Kenya seeks to allay the fears that plastics are a danger to the environment.
The technology known as D2W involves the use of an additive in the plastic manufacturing process and according to the Scientists who developed it, the additive makes plastics biodegradable within a few months when exposed to hot climatic conditions.
“In fact with D2W we can say plastic bags are fantastic, they don’t endanger the environment” says Winston Pryce, the General manager of Eco-Polymers, a United Arab Emirates company that has partnered with the Symphony Environmental— a British public company that developed D2W for Africa.
Symphony Environmental’s shares are traded at the London Stock Exchange. It is headquartered in Borehamwood, England.
Its Chief Scientist, Professor Gerald Scott says by using the new additive D2W, manufacturers can control the lifespan of plastic carrier bags produced for shoppers.
Local producers and suppliers who have tried the D2W say Kenyan users can now choose between plastic bags that disintegrate immediately after use or for the longer lasting carrier bags.
“This new additive can be used either to make plastic bags to last for three months, two years, five years or more” says Derrick Mmbijjewe, the operations director of Fujairah Plastics Kenya, the company that is distributing the D2W to local manufacturers.
According to Symphony, D2W is an additive in the basic plastic molecule during the manufacturing process, it alters the structure to make plastics biodegradable at the end of a pre-determined shelf life.
The process of degradation is caused by light, heat, stress and micro-organisms. The water, carbon dioxide and biomass which result from the process is useful to the ecosystem. D2W is already in use in 80 countries across the world with Kenya, Tunisia and South Africa the only countries in Africa in which the new system is found.
Companies that have adopted the use of polythene bags made from the D2W to wrap their goods include leading supermarket chains Wal Mart, Tesco, Sony, Nestle, Nokia, and car maker Renault among others.
“ D2W is the solution to the plastics problem. Banning the use of plastic bags will not help. We hope that governments and manufacturers in Africa will get behind this product to ensure environmental security” says Mr Pryce.
The government has put in place a raft of measures including a ban on the manufacture of shopping bags which are less than 30 microns thick so as to curb environmental pollution.
In 2007, the government introduced a 120 per cent excise duty on the plastic bags so as to discourage manufacturers from producing them but these measures have not reduced the use of the bags in supermarkets and shopping centres.
The East African Plastic Association says manufacturers laid off more than 5,000 workers and increased the price of plastic bags, to mitigate the taxes but the high prices of bags have not discouraged shoppers from using them.
The City Council of Nairobi is among some local authorities that have banned the use of the thinner shopping bags, threatening the lifelines of manufacturers and employment at plastic factories.
Treasury has also been toying with the idea of introducing the Green Levy Fund in place of the excise duty to curb the environmental menace posed by the plastic bags. If established, manufacturers of plastic items will pool money into the fund which will be used to clean the environment.
According to players in the plastics industry, the legislations and high taxes placed on the makers of polythene bags has reduced productivity and earnings in the sector.
The slow down of production in the plastic industry in Kenya and in the East Africa region could spell doom to jobs and economies.
According to the Economic Survey 2009, production of plastic products registered a 9.6 per cent decline last year.
“This could be attributed to production of polythene film bags which dropped by 23.3 per cent from 13,000 tonnes in 2007 to 10,000 tonnes in 2008,” says the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.
The re-usable shopping bags introduced by supermarkets have failed to click as most shoppers shun them because they are costly and cumbersome.
“I once bought the shopping bags that were introduced to replace the plastic bags but I always forget to carry it whenever I go shopping ... I just walk into a supermarket and buy my stuff” says Janice Aluoch, a resident of Nairobi.
According to a recent survey by the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA), Kenyan plastic manufacturers produce more than 4,000 tonnes of plastic bags every month for use by shoppers and for makers of other house hold consumer goods such as bread, milk and groceries.
Local supermarkets distribute more than two million plastic shopping bags to their customers every year.
If the plastics industry recovers, it will help boost growth in Kenya’s manufacturing sector which contracted last year.
According to the Economic Survey 2009, Kenya’s manufacturing sector is contracting fast, having registered a 3.8 per cent growth in 2008, the lowest in the last five years, compared to a 6.5 per cent growth registered in 2007.
The manufacturing sector grew 14.5 per cent in 2008 according to the Economic Survey 2009. According to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, some of the challenges the sector faces include low levels of productivity and the high cost of production.
Manufacturers are betting on the D2W to boost Kenya’s manufacturing sector.
“With this new additive, manufacturers will make more bags which are eco-friendly. We cannot ignore plastic shopping bags because they are here to stay. We only need to manufacture shopping bags which are not harmful to the environment” says Shazia Khan, the managing director of Fujairah Plastics which will be launching the new additive into the Kenyan market in September.