Kenya’s plastic bag manufacturers are banking on a switch to biodegradable polythene bags as a way of surviving the ban on plastic bags and keeping their businesses running.
Dip Shah, a director at Packaging Industries Ltd, a Nairobi-based polythene bags maker, said manufacturers had opened talks with the government to allow the use of the special plastics, which are decomposable.
The biodegradable ‘green’ plastic bags are used in countries such as the UK, Dubai and the US by major retailers and fast food operators, including Tesco, the Co-op, Pizza Hut, KFC, and Walmart.
But Kenya’s plastic bags makers need a six-month window to upgrade their machinery to produce eco-friendly polythene bags, said Mr Shah, who chairs the plastics sector of lobby group Kenya Association Manufacturers.
“We are talking to government to allow the use of biodegradable plastic bags,” said Mr Shah in an interview.
“We are asking for a six-month period after approval of the technology. This will allow time for the upgrading of machinery, seeking of finance, and sourcing of raw materials,” he said.
Kenya on August 28 implemented a ban on the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging, apart from industrial packing.
The ban is meant to cure the growing rise of solid waste, mostly plastics, which have clogged drainage, filled up landfills, and emit a lot of carbon when burnt.
In Kenya, over 24 million plastic bags were being used monthly, according to the Green Belt Movement, half of which end up in the solid waste mainstream.
Nairobi and Kiambu generate an estimated 2,500 tonnes of waste every day, 11 per cent of which is plastic, the findings show.
The Kenya Bureau of Standards has already approved the use of alternative materials to make bags such as canvas and clothing, but is yet to approve the use of biodegradable polythene.
There are more than 50 polythene bags makers in Kenya, said Mr Shah. Another set of more than 100 firms engage in hard plastics, producing things like chairs, and utensils.
Overall, the plastics industry in Kenya generated a turnover of Sh100 billion last year and employed more than 60,000 people, according to data from the manufacturers’ lobby.
There are over 176 plastic making companies in Kenya, says KAM.
Priyav Shah, chief executive at King Plastics, said firms in polythene bag making, technically known as film manufacturing, cannot automatically switch to hard plastics, as the technology is different.
There is also the challenge of seeking financing from lenders during the current uncertainty in the plastics sector.
Moreover, supermarkets, which are ranked among the top users of plastic bags, including Carrefour, Tuskys and Nakumatt, have turned to selling customers their own branded reusable bags.
Naivas chief operating officer Willy Kimani said between 1.5 per cent and 2.5 per cent of the retailer’s revenue was spent on packaging materials, mostly plastic paper bags.
“It is a great saving for us. We will pass some of this by subsidising the re-usable bags we’ll be offering to customers,” Mr Kimani said in an interview.
Troubled retailer Nakumatt has, likewise, been piloting returnable bags that it plans to offer free of charge to shoppers.
“At this time we have not made any commitments and the bags you mention having seen were part of a test and not a final selection,” said Nakumatt marketing director Andrew Dixon.