Plastic bags have returned, threatening to reverse the environmental protection gains made following the ban effected more than two years ago.
A spot check by the Business Daily has shown that plastic carrier bags are still in circulation and being used in daily activities especially by mama mboga, roadside food dealers and for packing items sold by small traders in the kadogo economy.
Some of the traders have all but forgotten about the ban and openly display their wares in plastic bags with little concern.
This is despite the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), in an August 2020 report, putting the ban compliance rate at 80 percent.
The government banned the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags for commercial and household packaging in August 2017 to save the environment.
The non-degradable plastics had become a menace with town streets across the country and garbage disposal sites choking with them.
The ban was also effected to deal with clogged drainage systems and blockage of sewerage, death of animals after ingesting the plastic materials, air pollution from burning in open air, due to their inability to decompose.
About 100 million plastic bags were said to be handed out annually in Kenya by supermarkets alone, at the time.
At first, the local manufacturing sector put up a strong fight against the ban. The sector lobby, Kenya Association of Manufacturing (KAM) and several traders filed petition at the High Court seeking to delay the implementation of the ban.
But the government did not relent and eventually the local plastic bag manufacturers were forced to align their operations with different products or target export markets to stay in business.
Some of the different products they could produce to replace the plastic bags include bags made of materials such as sisal, paper, cloth, papyrus, and the non-woven polypropylene bags (cloth-like bags) that are now commonplace in shops.
The Business Daily sought to know if some manufacturers gone back into plastics bags production covertly as was revealed in the first months of crackdown after the ban was effected.
KAM denied any suggestion that its members might be behind the re-emergence. The local plastic manufacturing sector ceased producing the carrier bags as soon as the ban was effected, it asserted and hinted that perhaps the culprits are across the borders.
“There is a high probability that these plastic bags are smuggled into the country through our porous borders, from countries where single use plastic carrier bags have not been banned,” KAM said.
“This (ban) was a country-specific policy decision on plastic bags that was not adopted at the regional level,” the lobby pointed out.
The KAM position mirrors that of former Nema director-general Geoffrey Wahungu who in 2018 said that there were cartels working along borders bringing in plastic bags from Uganda despite a successful implementation of the ban locally.
In its August report, Nema said there has been over 500 arrests and 300 prosecutions in the last two years.
Those found culpable have been fined between Sh50,000 and Sh150,000 with some jailed, the environmental watchdog said.
Over the two years, efforts to increase compliance on the ban by Nema have seen seizure of illegal products in market. By press time Nema, had not replied to queries on the re-emergence.
So, what is fuelling the return of the plastic bags menace?
For starters the price of the alternatives has remained high. Whereas before the ban a plastic carrier bag cost as little as Sh5, nowadays consumers have to fork out at least Sh10 for the smallest carrier bag.
The bulk prices for the alternative carrier bags cost range between Sh140 and Sh350, depending on sizes with 50 pieces.
Secondly, the alternatives have also posed a challenge when packaging certain items sold in small quantities such as cooking oil and locally-made liquid soap commonly traded in the kadogo economy. Unlike the plastic bags, most of the alternatives are porous, making them unsuitable for packaging, forcing the traders to seek out the plastics.
But not all single-use plastic bags were banned in 2017. The ban exempted bags used for primary industrial packaging, disposal bags used for handling biomedical and hazardous waste and garbage bin liners.
This also included plastic sheets used for construction and greenhouses coverings as well as plastic bags used in duty free shops within Kenya as they are considered to be outside of the Kenyan territory. However, at the point of entry into Kenya travellers are required to leave the bags.
As the plastic bags menace re-emerges, Kenya is under pressure from lobbyist in the world’s biggest market to lift the ban.
Early this month, 62 members of the US Congress wrote to the US government urging President Donald Trump to resist any actions that would undermine Kenya’s efforts to restrict the importation and consumption of single-use plastics and other pollutants amid concerns about health and environment safety.
This was after Kenya among other countries became targeted for plastic exports trade by the American Chemistry Council, an US industry group for chemical makers and fossil fuel makers.
The oil firms want Kenya’s limits on plastics reviewed in the ongoing negotiations for free trade deal, which would replace the current regime under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).
“Dear Mr President, as you negotiate a trade deal between the United States and Kenya, we write to express our strong opposition to efforts to weaken Kenya’s restrictions on importation or consumption of single-use plastic and other products responsible for plastic pollution,” the lawmakers said.
The US President is yet to show his inclination, keeping Kenyan environmental activists and regulators guessing.
Meanwhile, a 2018 initiative between Nema and other plastics stakeholders to phase out single-use bottles appears to be progressing well. The agency followed up the ban with prohibition of single-use plastics in protected areas including national parks, forests and beaches.
In 2018, Nema, KAM and Environment and forestry ministry signed a framework to promote Take Back and Extended Producer Responsibility Schemes for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles.
The scheme aimed at providing infrastructure and supporting players in the value chain to separate waste collection and recycling of the bottles.
Beverage manufacturing company Coca-Cola Beverage Africa (CCBA) Kenya, for instance, is funding waste management programme aimed at ensuring collection and recycling of 100 percent of it bottles sold to the market.
The recycled products are used to make valuable items such as fibre, textile and bags.
“All manufactures pay a premium on their imports to subsidise collection to and transfer to centres which is then processed. People get paid the part of the incentives to go to the streets for collection,” CCBA Kenya managing director Mr Xavier Selga said.
Mr Selga said the company has managed 70 percent collection of the plastics.
“We aim to receive 100 percent of the bottles we bring it the market… We know the plastic is a problem. We want to be part of the solution on the country and bringing a green footprint,” Mr Selga said.
“We have been reviewing the cost and ease of doing business for collectors and recyclers in the country to enhance more investments in the value chain such as inter-county transportation costs and duplicate regulation,” KAM added.