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Ideas & Debate

Single-use plastics ban an opportunity to innovate

Plastic bottles
Plastic bottles block a storm water retention pond near Lake Nakuru. PHOTO | AYUB MUIYURO 

June 5 is World Environment Day. But that is not news. It has been marked yearly since 1974. The news is that the landmark ban on all single-use plastic in conservation areas will take effect on the same date, making it a singularly important day in Kenya’s calendar.

Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, announced the ban in June last year while speaking at the Women Deliver 2019 Conference at the Vancouver Conference Centre in Canada.

The ban on single-use plastic comes just over two years after President Kenyatta’s government banned plastic carrier bags and flat bags in August 2017.

Single-use plastics are to be disposed of or recycled. There are a wide range of plastic materials that fall under this category and they are used widely for packaging. They are popular for their convenience. Some of the materials that fall under this category include grocery bags, food packaging materials, bottles, straws, containers, cups and cutlery.

What does this ban mean for you?

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The ban affects use of plastics in beaches, national parks, forests and other areas.

There are 23 terrestrial national parks, 28 terrestrial national reserves, four marine national parks, six marine national reserves and four national sanctuaries as well 372 gazetted forests.

These are the areas considered most vulnerable to the polluting effects of single-use plastic.

While it is possible to visit a forest or a national park with plastic plates, cups, spoons, forks and straws, it will be forbidden starting June 5.

So, what are the options?

Obviously, the government does not plan on discouraging people from enjoying their country.

Domestic tourism is growing and contributed nearly four million bed nights in 2018. Tourist numbers in 2019 stood at 2.2 million, earning the country in excess of $1.6 billion (Sh160 billion).

Tourism accounted for 8.8 percent of the GDP, the 2018 statistics show.

Going by the number of tourists recorded annually, it is fair to estimate that more than two million plastic water bottles are dumped in conservation areas every year. Some of these find their way to the rivers, lakes and oceans where aquatic animals confuse them for food.

Up to 73 percent of waste in aquatic ecosystems is non-biodegradable. Fifty percent of the waste accounts for items that have been disposed of after single use.

While the government is keen on growing the tourism numbers, it is also keen to protect the goose that lays the golden egg. It is the pristine nature of these areas that keeps the tourists coming.

Travellers will, therefore, be advised to carry items that they can use and return home with. Plastic straws offer convenience but it is easy to do without them or they could be replaced with metallic ones. In place of water bottles, carry enough potable water in jerry cans and use standard glass or cups to drink. Here, there is opportunity to develop a portable water dispensing system.

Herein is a golden opportunity to show the younger generation that conservation matters. When they see adults using standard home items during visits they will know they have a responsibility to care for the environment. Those adults who throw litter out of their cars need to stop. The children are watching.

However, this is not an outright ban. Kenyans and visitors will still use single-use plastics everywhere else except in the areas aforementioned.

But this is a warning that we may be headed the Rwanda way — a complete ban at some point in the future, unless stakeholders manage plastic waste better. One of those ways is the extended producer responsibility or simply EPR. The other is the Polluter Pays Principle.

In the Sustainable Waste Management Bill, 2019, there are clear provisions for these two principles. EPR means the financial and physical responsibility for a product is extended beyond the consumer stage. The producer may put in place refund or take back schemes; create awareness and financially support reuse.

Polluter Pays Principle means the cost of cleaning up pollution or compensating victims of pollution is borne by the person causing the pollution.

The ban on single-use plastic is an opportunity to innovate. Plastic is making us sick.

We need safer alternatives.

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