Recently Kenyans awoke to news of an official gazette notice banning the use of plastic bags often referred to as “paper bags”,as well as the importation and manufacture of plastic bags from 28th August 2017. Kenya has made previous attempts at banning plastic bags, this time I think it will hold. Other East African countries have already embraced the ban within East Africa and other East African countries are considering implementation.
Rwanda is being used as a prime example of banning plastic bags done right
Other countries in the World have also begun to embrace a plastic free situation but on smaller scales, affecting the ban in certain areas within towns and cities, or entire cities such as is the case with Delhi, India: They have officially banned plastic cutlery, cups and bags effective this year from 1st january. Delhi suffers from extreme levels of air pollution with air quality being so poor on many days: this has in part been due to burning of plastic bags and other waste.
Many such as Australian environmentalist and plastic pollution crusader Tim Silverwood have seen first hand what bad waste management can do:
“The most profound moment happened when I was snowboarding in the Himalaya and discovered that all the waste generated by the mountain village was dumped over the side of a pristine mountain. That was their ‘away’. It shook me to the core, on my journey I’d seen the shocking ocean pollution throughout Indo, SE Asia and India but here I was amongst the tallest, most beautiful mountains on earth witnessing trash (that I had a hand in creating) starting it’s long migration to the sea. ”
In Kenya our previous attempts at banning plastic bags did not quite work out as planned with concessions made on the thickness of plastic allowed and misinformation amongst the general public on how to know what thickness of plastic was acceptable. Some organizations embraced biodegradable plastic bags in an attempt to offer a greener solution. Unfortunately many would argue that the bags disintegrate and enter the waterways as small pieces but still clog waterways and affect the environment. There was a brief unsustained attempt by some supermarkets to introduce brown paper bags, pity it did not hold.
I hope this time all the supermarkets will sustain eco friendly plastic free, reusable options, that must include options for shoppers who bring in their own reusable shopping bags as I grow weary of the strange looks I get when I take my own shopping bags and ask the attendant to kindly pack my shopping in them. Uchumi and Chandarana supermarket has been rather notorious for their reluctance to pack my shopping in my own bags or to give me a carton when I request for one. Some attendants also use up to three bags to wrap one item…something that makes me personally cringe.
Kenya faces problems with not only poor disposal of plastic bags but the question of what to do with the existing plastic bags , some individuals have already been making reusable bags out of plastic milk packaging or weave together plastic bags. They are actually quite cute and practical.
Above: products made by Tunaweza Women’s Group, Bombolulu, Kenya.
The culture of plastic bags
It is not deeply ingrained within the fabric of society to put everything in a plastic bag, sometimes using as many as three bags to wrap and transport one item. Most of us are not used to carrying our own bags for even the most basic of shopping and rely on the shop keeper/ kiosk to provide us with a plastic bag. Others in the informal settlements pack small affordable quantities of food items in thin plastics.
Very thin plastic bags are commonplace and it is not uncommon to see them littering streets, clogging drains and flying in the wind like a kite that got away. They are used once to pack something and then either discarded or used to throw away rubbish that either ends up littering or in a dump site.
On the flip side there are still unanswered questions in the zeal to ban plastic bags, such as what happens to those who work at plastic bag manufacturing companies? What would be an alternative for them to still earn their daily bread?
What of those who collect and sort plastic bags to recycle in order get some food in their bellies, what will become of them? This time I hope such questions will be answered.
We need public education to ensure we actually do not continue the habits that got us into this situation in the first place. It must be initiated from the ground up otherwise it will be very hard to get the results that are envisioned including education on alternatives to plastic bags, something I have not seen or heard in this attempt.
There are alternatives to plastic bags: including reusable plastic bags made of thicker gauge of plastic, canvas bags, cloth bags, sisal bags, denim, jute, paper, crochet bags and bags made of water hyacinth.