Nema putting the cart before the horse on biodegradable plastics

Goats rummage through a heap of garbage.  

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Let's face it, Kenyans love a good fix. A leaky faucet? Duct tape. Pothole in the road? More tape. But the recent push by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) for mandatory biodegradable bin liners for organic waste feels like putting a fancy Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

In recommending the shift to biodegradable garbage bags, there is a need for Nema to recognise the glaring gaps and weaknesses in Kenya's waste ecosystem.

Granted, the Sustainable Waste Management Act 2022 has various provisions that are yet to be implemented, including enforcement on the closure of illegal dumpsites or landfills.

But wouldn't public awareness and installation of proper infrastructure like material recovery facilities (MRFs) be a better starting point?

Worryingly, Nema has not made public what standards would be used to determine what would constitute biodegradable garbage bags.

Biodegradable materials should be broken down by microbial action, chewed up, and turned into natural byproducts like biomass and methane.

According to the European standard for compostable products, compostable plastics should break down under industrial-scale composting conditions within 12 weeks, leaving no more than 10 percent of the original material in pieces bigger than 2mm and doing no harm to the soil itself through heavy metals or worsening its structure.

In this regard, it is important to note that most plastics labelled biodegradable require specific conditions (temperature, oxygen, microorganisms, humidity, and light to degrade) and are usually required to undergo biological decomposition within an industrial facility with degrees north of 70 degrees Celsius (which not even our county governments might have the luxury of owning).

The Sustainable Waste Management Act 2022 introduced mandatory extended producer responsibility (EPR) for all products in the Kenyan market as a step towards accelerating the realisation of a circular economy in Kenya.

Since 2021, for instance, the Kenya Extended Producer Responsibility Organization (KEPRO) has supported the recycling of over 15,000 metric tonnes of post-consumer plastic waste resulting from such packaging as bread bags and empowered several hardworking citizens to invest in this line of business.

What happens to these emerging businesses that recycle waste into useful products such as the bin liners we currently?

Let's focus on the big picture. Throwing a banana peel in a "biodegradable" bag won't magically turn a landfill into a compost heap. Let’s fix the leaks, build the infrastructure, and educate the public. Let's not put the cart before the eco-friendly horse.

The writer is an urban planner.

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