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Why Kenya had to act tough on use of plastic carrier bags

Judi Wakhungu, the Environment secretary. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Judi Wakhungu, the Environment secretary. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Environment secretary Judi Wakhungu two months ago gazetted a ban on use of plastic bags, which is set to come into effect in September.

Environmentalists have praised the ban, saying it will help to minimise pollution of urban spaces, forests and water bodies. But manufacturers have warned of looming job losses and that the implementation period is too short.

The Business Daily interviewed Prof Wakhungu on the road ahead of the ban’s implementation. Here are the excerpts.

The plastic carrier bag ban is an important decision taken by the government but also controversial. some players are not happy about it, how is that playing out?

It is a tough decision. It’s a lonely decision. But it is a decision that we must take for the sake of the environment. I look at everything through an environmental lens.

I don’t know why it has surprised Kenyans because this has been discussed for the last 15 years. I remember the first person who made a declaration saying that we ought to ban use of plastic carrier bags was our Nobel laureate, Wangari Maathai, when she was assistant minister for Environment.

The second person who made a declaration saying we ought to ban was the late John Michuki. But it had not been legislated. That is the difficulty.

What made it more difficult from where I sit is that standard waste management is a devolved function which means it is each county that is responsible for its solid waste management and managing its dumpsites.

When Kenyans look at the dirty environment they look at me. They have no idea what the devolved governance structure means. We have tried very hard to work with the counties, to say ‘collect your waste’, ‘manage your waste’, with no much success.

At some point we even took Nairobi County and Mombasa County to court but then the Judiciary declared government can’t take government to court.

What does the ban target?

What we are targeting is the carrier bags and the flat bags. We are not targeting primary packaging. That will now be phase two.

Other people were saying why you don’t target the plastic bottles also, because they are also a menace. That will be the next phase. What we need to do is sort out our rampant use of plastic bags.

We will soon declare many protected areas under the Ministry of Environment, including Karura [Forest], plastic bag- and polythene-free.

Many Kenyans like the environment. But the same people are also polluting. When you go to Karura on a Monday there will be heaps of plastic bottles.

Have other measures like environmental awareness failed?

We have raised awareness on wanton littering in Kenya, as Kenyans have a right to clean and healthy environment. But they also tell me they have a right to litter.

I don’t have the personnel to go into every single person’s home to pick up the litter. So let me give you shock therapy, which is to do what is legally mandated by the Cabinet secretary environment, and which is what we have discussed for over 15 years with the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, (Kepsa) and the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM).

If you go to any of the dumpsite what you see are plastic bags. This is actually what dominates. I am sorry we do not have the privilege of using plastic carrier bags because we don’t know how to manage them.

The decision has clearly ruffled a few feathers?

I have probably ruffled a few feathers yes but I can assure you that 95 per cent of Kenyans are supportive of the ban. They know that they have to change their behaviour.

We are also working very closely with KAM. We don’t have an adversarial relationship with them.  But I have reservations about how some of the stories have been played out in the media.

The first is that 60,000 jobs will be lost. That is a gross exaggeration. All you have to do is go to these factories. These industries are producing so many other materials, a minor factor of which is the plastic carrier bags. For them to say 60,000 jobs will be lost is erroneous.

How bad is environmental pollution from plastic bags?

All you have to do is just go outside Nairobi. And how will you know you are approaching a town or a city? You will see plastic bags everywhere.

That is just the visual aspect of it. They are contaminants, they are pollutants and they will not decompose for another 100, 200, even 400 years.

When you go to fish nowadays your hook is more likely to pick up a plastic bag than a fish. Globally if you look at our oceans they continue to be contaminated and polluted by plastics yet we have alternatives.

Which are these alternatives?

We can use sisal, bamboo, water hyacinth and other paper materials. So the alternatives are there.

Is the time enough for Kenyans to adjust to the ban, or is there need for a graduated ban through high levies on use of plastic carrier bags?

It’s a fair question for Kenyans to ask if the time to implement the ban is enough. But what is a reasonable time and when is the appropriate time when a discussion has been going on for 15 years or more? 

We want to encourage homegrown industries. These are petrochemicals that we are importing. Why not use our own resources, for instance water hyacinth, which is an environmental menace.

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