A dumping site in Nairobi choking with plastic shopping bags. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP
On March 15, Kenya’s Environment and Natural Resources Cabinet Secretary, Judi Wakhungu, announced that effective in September Kenya would ban plastic bags – again. The government tried to ban plastic bags in 2005, 2007 and 2011. Each time it failed because of lobbying by the manufactures. They claim that 60,000 jobs would be lost although they don’t seem to add jobs from making paper and reusable bags. They claim also that paper bags will lead to more deforestation of the country. As with all laws in Kenya it is difficult to understand how the previous bans were withdrawn, but the plastic bag manufactures are working hard to overturn the ban again. It not clear if it will be implemented or not.
I pass this trash pile every morning on my walk to buy the newspaper.
Plastic bags are a tremendous problem. Here in Lumakanda, a small commercial center, plastic bags are everywhere – just today I had my grand-niece Trina “capture” a plastic bag that was being blown thorough our front yard by a strong wind. We have had two sheep die from eating plastic bags and we decided to stop keeping sheep. It is ironic that every morning as I go on my walk, I see the shopkeepers sweeping the areas in front of their shops – the trash collects in the public areas. Since there is no way to dispose of them as there is no landfill in the countryside, people burn the bags and other plastic items. I am sure that this pollutes the environment, but what other options do people have? I must confess that our household burns plastic along with our paper trash.
Environmentalists collecting plastic bags in Nairobi. Hercules cleaning the Augean stables had an easier task. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP
In Nairobi and other major towns, the plastic bags block up the drainage systems so that when the rainy seasons come, road become impassable after a hard rain. They are an eyesore even in the tourist areas like Masai Mara and the coastal beaches. Since it takes after hundreds of years for the bags to degrade, they persist in the environment and the small pieces of broken up bags enter the oceans which are becoming saturated with plastic.
It is ironic that in the United States in Montgomery County, Maryland, where we live when we are in the US, one needs to buy a plastic bag for 5 cents so that most people now bring reusable bags when they shop. This is what we do when we are in the US. After a short time in adjustment (forgetting the bags in the car) it becomes an environmental habit. Kenya which is a much poorer country wastes resources on free plastic bags for everything people buy and Kenyans seem oblivious to the idea that habits can be changed for the better. So far there has been no national campaign for the use of reusable bags in Kenya.
In 2008, Rwanda banned plastic bags which at that time I think were imported from Kenya so there were no manufactures to resist. When I cross the border from Uganda to Rwanda by bus, all my luggage like everyone else’s is inspected and any plastic bags are removed. The traveler either has to continue without the bag or must buy a paper one from hawkers who are selling them at about four times what they should be costing. Everyone who visits Kigali including those from Kenya always comment on how clean Kigali is compared to Nairobi. This cleanliness is due, though, to more than the ban on plastic bags. In Kigali, the government has hired genocide widow survivors to sweep the streets every day in order to give them employment since their families no longer exist to support them. Moreover during the morning of the last Saturday of each month, Rwanda has umuganda or community service day. Every household must contribute one adult member for the community work and all shops are closed and vehicle traffic prohibited. One of the activities that is performed during umuganda is cleaning up trash. Psychologically I think that, when people have to pick up the trash they had previously thrown down, they are much more likely to desist from throwing trash by the roadside.
At the beginning of this year Tanzania also banned plastic bags and Uganda is considering doing the same thing. It all of this comes to fruition then East Africa (except Burundi) will be plastic bag free.
The next issue to tackle is plastic bottles for water, soda, juice, and alcoholic beverages. While glass soda bottles are still used, returned, and reused in East Africa, soda in nonreturnable plastic bottles, even though it cost more, is becoming more common.
I suspect that in the long run plastic is going to have to be banned everywhere in the world for most uses. The only other option is to find or develop some organism that “eats” plastic so that it can biodegrade.
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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC) and Friends Church Peace Team (FCPT). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region.
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