Kenya faces major challenges in waste management. Most urban centres lack basic waste management structures and open dumping is the most popular option. A close look at problematic waste at roadsides, rivers, dumpsites, and most public spaces revealed that polythene bags were most widespread. Scientists claim that polythene bags take over 1,000 years to decompose: hence the earliest ones are still with us somewhere in the environment.
Polythene bags are associated with many negative impacts. The main challenges include: their inability to decompose; the aesthetic cost of littering; blockage of sewerage and water drainage infrastructure; public health costs; pollution of the coastal and marine environments; death of livestock and wild animals from consumption of plastic material; air pollution when disposed of through open burning; and danger to human health when used for packaging hot food.
Kenya’s selling point to tourists is her natural and scenic beauty. This needs to be safeguarded. A major concern is that highways – the gateways to Kenya’s major tourist attraction destinations – are strewn with plastic waste. Our national parks are no longer natural and are littered either by tourists or by polythene bags blown by the wind. This calls for behaviour change – even in the transport shuttles where tourists take refreshments – and for disposing of the plastic waste appropriately.
At least one case per day of animals with plastics in their digestive systems is reported in every abattoir in Kenya. The most affected are cows, due to the selective feeding preferences of other types of livestock such as sheep and goats. In one case, a slaughtered cow had 2.5 kg of plastic waste in its lumen. This has negative economic impacts, especially in dairy farming.
The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources takes solid waste management very seriously. In the Constitution of Kenya 2010, Article 42 assures all Kenyans of a clean and healthy environment while, of course, demanding that all of us are responsible in safeguarding that right. Article 69 obligates the Ministry to eliminate all processes and activities that degrade the environment. Polythene bags are a common menace and need to be removed from the environment. In fulfilling these constitutional demands, the ministry is guided by several policies: key among them is Sessional Paper No. 10 of 2014 on Environment Policy. The waste management agenda is further legislated for in the Environmental Management and Coordination Act and its associated Waste Management Regulations 2006. The National Solid Waste Management Strategy 2014 further elaborates actions to be taken to address the waste challenge at national and county levels.
On 28 February 2017, I issued Gazette notice No. 2356, banning the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging. It notified the public that this would take effect from the sixth month from the date of the notice i.e. on 28 August 2017.
Several initiatives were put in place to help make implementation successful. These include:
• Awareness. The ban attracted a lot of attention and Ministry and National Environment Management Authority officials received many invitations from media houses – including those that broadcast in indigenous languages – to explain it. The Ministry and the Authority uploaded frequently asked questions on a website. They were also printed and circulated by daily newspapers. The Authority organized awareness meetings for diverse groups such as regulators, religious groups, supermarkets and public transport so as to clarify what was banned and what each stakeholder was expected to do.
• Alternatives. The Ministry held a two-day exhibition in Nairobi to showcase how stakeholders had adjusted and innovatively developed alternative eco-friendly packaging materials to replace polythene bags. This attracted 41 exhibitors and was mounted collaboratively with the Nation Media Group, which created much awareness through print and digital media before and during the exhibition.
• Exemptions. Implementing the polythene ban ran into some hiccups since the packaging industry is quite diverse and complex. Some products, especially food ones, had to be packed using polythene bags due to hygienic concerns. The manufacturing sector also raised several pertinent issues that had to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. The Authority received the complaints, considered them and gave those with merit conditional exemptions to continue using polythene bags. These exemptions only applied for primary industrial packaging and handling waste.
• Forests and parks. It was felt that some sections of the country should be made free of polythene bags to show Kenyans what is possible. This was implemented in all natural forests and game reserves. No visitor is allowed to access these areas while in possession of a polythene bag.
• Seeking partnerships. The Ministry wrote to other Ministries and the Council of Governors explaining the ban and seeking their support in creating more awareness and undertaking enforcement action to ensure success. This bore a lot of fruit: the Ministry received written commitments from various other ministries and semi-autonomous institutions, and from the Council of Governors, declaring their unwavering support to ensure that the ban was successful. The Kenya Airports Authority procured bins to take polythene bags from visitors entering Kenya.
• Enforcement. The National Environment Management Authority is responsible for enforcing the ban. To ensure success, it established a Joint Implementation Committee with members of the manufacturing sector to manage the transition, and a sub-committee to look at all issues of enforcement. Soon after the ban, its officers visited manufacturers and retail outlets to ensure that use of polythene bags was stopped, even confiscating any stocks of the bags found onsite. It announced specific areas where the public could drop polythene bags, including supermarkets, some banks and Kenya Red Cross offices, from where they were removed by registered recyclers. As the ban continues, enforcement action has been taken. Some people have been prosecuted and fined.
Kenya is proud to have succeeded in banning the use, manufacture and import of polythene bags. The widespread public support was encouraging. The environment is now cleaner.
We continue to address the teething problems of implementation especially on the needs of primary industrial packaging. However we are happy that we have closed discussions on carrier bags, and they are no more in use in Kenya. We appreciate the support given to the ban by the industry and will continue to work with it to transition Kenya into a plastic bags-free country.