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Shoppers get creative to survive plastic ban

A hawker sells biodegradable shopping bags at the Nyeri matatu terminus on August 28, 2017.
A hawker sells biodegradable shopping bags at the Nyeri matatu terminus, August 28, 2017. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NMG 

A ban on plastic bags in the country has seen more shoppers taking up creative options of packaging to stay out of trouble with the law.

Peter Mukolwe walks around town with his gunny bag.

He commissioned a local tailor to make the bag which has become his choice carrier for the masonry tools he ferries between home and his workplace.

This was his alternative to the plastic bags he used before and due to the nature of tools he has, he needed a hardy bag, not the single-use non-woven bags introduced following a ban on plastic bags in Kenya two years ago.

“You cannot risk using something illegal when passing though Nairobi’s central Business Centre to work and back. This is good since it does not wear out fast,” he said.

At supermarket parking lots, shoppers push loaded trolleys and full shopping baskets and empty the contents of their shopping into the boots or backseats of their vehicles, unbothered to buy shopping bags.

Others have resorted to using cartons or empty flour bags as an alternative to bags as the country remains in limbo over the solutions to ferry their shopping and other wares around.

The Kiondo, popular before the large scale production of plastic bags came into play, has made a comeback with men and women using it as their choice packaging.

Separating shopping depending on usage has become a luxury with everything being thrown into a single bag due to limited alternatives.

Impromptu affair

Shopping in Kenya is no longer an impromptu affair where one drops into a supermarket for a quick impulse buy.

One has to take into consideration how they will carry their shopping, most having to bags from home to mitigate the extra cost imposed by buying shopping bags at the tills.

It is an affair planned right from home, a consequence of the ban on plastic bags that was introduced in 2017 by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema).

The ban meant that the plastic bags originally dished out at no cost by retailers were now replaced by non-woven bags that were issued to shoppers at a cost.

The bags made from recycled plastic were to replace the nylon bags previously used.

The solution has been short lived as Nema issued another directive that was to become effective on April 1, banning non-woven bags, arguing that they had become the new polluter of the environment.

Nema outlawed use of low quality single-use non-woven bags, throwing traders, fresh produce dealers and shoppers into confusion on the next alternative.

“All manufacturers, suppliers/distributors and users of these non-woven polypropylene bags should stop further manufacture, importation, supply and use of these bags in the Kenyan market effective March 31st,” said a notice published by Nema Director-General Geoffrey Wahungu.

Formulating standards

According to Prof Wahungu, use of non-woven bags would only be allowed once standards have been formulated requiring manufacturers to come up with new products that promote re-use.

The Nema boss observed that due to rising demand for the bags, some manufacturers had taken advantage of the situation to supply poor quality bags to the market, which are disposed of after single use.

The non-woven bags manufacturers, retailers as well as users, lacked a defined mechanism on collection and proper disposal of the bags, thereby reversing gains made since the ban on use of polythene bags.

While the High Court offered temporary reprieve with a stay on the ban order, retail malls have introduced branded hardy non-woven bags while small and medium enterprises dealing in textile products have made attractive washable bags.

A 2018 report by the United Nations Environment Programme on single-use plastics indicates that Kenyans are slowly adjusting to life without plastic bags but there is not yet a clear account of the impact of the ban.

The report states that prior to 2017, about 100 million plastic bags were used in Kenya every year in supermarkets alone, impacting the environment, human health and wildlife especially in areas where waste management systems were inadequate.

“Plastic packaging accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste globally, and much of it is thrown away within just a few minutes of its first use.

"Much plastic may be single-use, but that does not mean it is easily disposable. When discarded in landfills or in the environment, plastic can take up to a thousand years to decompose,” said Erik Solheim Head of UN Environment.

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