Ban on plastic bags first step in getting rid of marine litter

Plastic bags will no longer be used as ban takes effect next week. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Plastic bags will no longer be used as ban takes effect next week. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

At the Economist World Ocean Summit in Bali on February 23, UN Environment launched a revolutionary global campaign dubbed #CleanSeas to eliminate marine litter, including micro plastics in cosmetics and single-use plastic by 2022.

According to the UN Environment’s statistics, more than eight million tonnes of plastics enter oceans each year.

Data from the UN agency records that plastic contributes to about 80 per cent of ocean waste. This has devastating effects on wildlife, fisheries, and tourism; costing a whopping estimate of $8 billion in damage to marine ecosystems.

Perhaps hot on the heels of this campaign, the Kenyan government, through Environment secretary Judi Wakhungu, published a gazette notice dated February 28 declaring a ban on “the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and house hold packaging” with effect from Monday.

Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, was among the first to respond by tweeting, ‘Fantastic news! Kenya bans plastic bags. Congratulations! A great example! #CleanSeas’. The Green Belt Movement, founded by Nobel Peace Laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai followed suit.

While the ban was music to the ears of environmentalists, local industries through the Kenya Association of Manufacturers protested that they were not consulted.

Manufacturers posit that the ban will negatively affect jobs and livelihood of Kenyans, submitting that there are 176 plastic manufacturing companies in Kenya, which directly employ 2.89 per cent of all Kenyan employees and more than 60,000 people indirectly.

There have been past efforts by the government to achieve the ban. The first attempt was in 2007 when Kenya desired to curb plastic bags that had a 0.03-millimetre thickness. A universal 120 per cent tax on plastic bag use was also imposed. However, this attempt failed.

In 2011, another quest to do away with plastic bags of up to 0.06 millimetres in thickness became dead in the water.

This time around, environmentalists are cautiously optimistic that Kenya will succeed.

The latest move indicates a softening of position and change in policy. In the past, the country had routinely opposed proposals contained in a Rwanda-inspired Bill, the East African Community Polythene Materials Control Bill, 2011, in the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) expressing concerns about massive job losses. However, most recently, the EALA passed the Bill, which if signed by the East African Community heads of state will see all plastic bags banned across the bloc.

If the directive is effectuated, Kenya will join regional ranks of Rwanda, which has been plastic bag free since 2008 and Tanzania whose ban was effected in January.

While the gazette notice does not include a penalty for violation of the ban once implemented, reliance for consequences of breach is placed on the Environment Management and Coordination Act, which prescribes harsh penalties.

Shoppers will have no option but to make necessary adjustments for compliance by carrying eco-friendly, reusable, and biodegradable bags when the grace period ends, effective Monday to avoid falling foul of the law.

Joram W. Wachanja is Senior Associate, Oseko & Ouma Advocates LLP.