Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Kenya's strict law banning onetime use plastic bags sees some success

A woman hands her merchandise in a reusable bag to a customer at an open market in Nairobi, Kenya, on July 19, 2018. (Mainichi)

MOMBASA/NAKURU/NAIROBI, Kenya -- An open market filled with tin and wooden stalls along a dirt road in the coastal city of Mombasa in Southeast Kenya does not have something that most similar markets in Africa do: plastic bags.

Those bags that once covered roadsides and rivers or even decorated trees after they were blown away by winds are gone. Instead, colorful bags made from materials said to be biodegradable were everywhere. "Everyone wants to live in a hygienic environment. I use and reuse my bag many times," said Beatrice, 42, a female shopper at the market, welcoming the introduction of the new item.

Kenya introduced "one of the toughest laws" banning the production, import, sale and use of plastic bags for onetime use in August 2017. Until then, some 100 million such bags were distributed free of charge at supermarkets nationwide, and dumped everywhere after use. Consequently, the plastic waste clogged rivers and waterways here and there, frequently causing floods. Cows and other livestock mistakenly eating the bags also posed a problem. "Abattoirs used to find plastic in the guts of two or three out of every cows taken to slaughter," explained Zephania Ouma, deputy director in charge of compliance at the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA). Plastic bags "made cities dirty, threatened food safety and triggered natural disasters," he said.

The one year period since the introduction of the law banning plastic bags has seen cityscapes transformed and less livestock eating plastic bags. People, who appeared confused initially, are beginning to carry their own bags for multiple use, according to local people.

A proud Ouma said, "Now you can see a drastic change. Although it's not 100 percent, the law is functioning very well."

--- Twitter campaign behind plastic ban ---

The government-led effort to introduce the legal ban had the backing of civil society members who raised their voice against plastic waste. Efforts aimed at banning plastic bags for onetime use began some 15 years ago in Kenya, but they often failed to produce tangible results due to strong resistance from industry organizations representing manufacturers and sellers of plastic bags and other relevant businesses. Still, slowly but surely, things moved ahead for those seeking a Kenya with less plastic bags, thanks in part to the struggle of people like James Wakibia, a 35-year-old photographer in the central Kenya city of Nakuru.

Wakibia, angry at the sight of huge piles of plastic bags and bottles, organized signature collection drives seeking changes in waste management and submitted the signatures to the local government, but nothing initially happened. In 2015, however, he launched a campaign to ask people to carry a banner that said "#ISUPPORTBANPLASTICSKE," snap their pictures and tweet them. The move attracted a lot of attention, including that of the then environmental minister who retweeted Wakibia's thoughts.

Cows chew on garbage inside plastic bags at a waste dump in the suburbs of Nairobi, Kenya, on July 18, 2018. (Mainichi)

"Support came from all over the world, overcoming borders," recalled Wakibia with a smile. With the backing of citizens the law banning throw-away plastic bags came into force in August last year.

The sudden change, however, confused ordinary people. A major supermarket in Kitengela about 30 kilometers southeast of the capital Nairobi was inundated with complaints from shoppers when the market started selling reusable bags for the equivalent of between 10 and 40 yen. "Why do I have to pay? The plastic bags were free," was one of many complaints.

Reusable bags are expensive. A woman selling tomatoes and onions complained her daily profit of about 600 yen plummeted by half after their introduction, because they were six times more expensive than plastic bags and she cannot raise the prices of her products to keep her customers. "Although I don't oppose the ban, there should be a cheap alternative. Otherwise I cannot continue my business," she said.

--- Tough enforcement changes people's behavior ---

Despite those complaints, people actually carrying plastic bags are rare on the streets of Nairobi. They refrain from using the bags because they are afraid of arrest. In Mombasa in October last year, Martin Masila and three others were arrested on the spot when they were selling fruit on the street. "It was like a joke because I was just selling fruits. I was so shocked," recalled Masila. The police officer pointed at the plastic bag containing apples Musila was selling and yelled, "Aren't you aware of the plastic ban?" He was detained, and tried the next day. The judge ruled to release him because he was a first-time offender, but also told him to be ready for imprisonment or pay high fines if he did it again.

In Kenya, using plastic bags for onetime use can carry a maximum punishment of four years in prison or 4 million schillings (about 4.4 million yen) in fines. Some 1,150 producers, distributors of plastic bags and roadside sellers have been arrested since the law was introduced, and according to a local newspaper, there was actually a case in which 2 million schillings in bail was posted.

"I don't want to get arrested over this kind of thing," said Masila, who now use nets instead of plastic bags to put his products in for his customers.

Deputy director Ouma of the NEMA explained that the tough punishment is "a deterrent measure by the government to strongly stimulate society to change people's perception and behavior, and thus make them follow the law and regulations."

Wakibia, the anti-plastic activist, said, "Without a proper enforcement, all these plastics will come back and the situation will return to where it started," and emphasized the need to raise people's awareness through environmental education. He intends to spread his call for a plastic ban across Africa through collaboration with people he connected with through social media.

--- Need to promote systems for collection and reuse ---

Despite the movement against plastic bags, there are some people opposing the ban. They point out the economic impact of the restriction. According to the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, the ban forced many plastic bag makers to shut down their businesses and caused the loss of thousands of jobs. The association estimates up to 100,000 jobs in related businesses were affected, and urged the government to take a phased approach to restrict the use of plastic bags.

But Peter Odhengo, an environmental specialist who serves as a government adviser, argued back, saying the socio-economic benefit of banning plastic bags is much higher and better than the cost of using plastic bags. "Plastic waste pollution threatens people's health and quality of life and causes a decrease in tourism revenue, which makes up a large portion of the Kenyan economy. Tourists are now enjoying their holidays along the coastline as the beaches are now cleaner than before," Odhengo said.

James Wakibia holds a banner reading "#ISUPPORTBANPLASTICSKE" on a street in Nakuru, Kenya, on July 25, 2018. (Mainichi)

A number of lawsuits have been filed seeking the withdrawal of the new law or damages, but plaintiffs -- most of them manufacturers -- lost the cases. Joyce Njogu, a senior official at the KMA, acknowledged that fighting a battle against "public good" is no easy task. The association has changed its original strategy of all-out resistance, and is now trying to get the ear of the public by actively taking part in waste management through the collection of plastic bottles, which are said to be the next target of a ban.

Eric Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) based in Nairobi, sees the Kenyan plastic band as a positive step. "Kenya's leadership by example will surely inspire other neighbors too," he said.

Kenyan society has begun to adjust itself to the new regulation and the plastic industry is shifting its attitude too, Solheim pointed out, but, "Plastic bag pollution really is just one visible symptom of our widespread addiction to throwaway and pointless plastic," and more efforts are expected to curb other forms of plastic pollution, based on lessons learned in banning plastic bags.

According to Ouma of the environment agency, the recycle rate of plastic in Kenya hovers low at 15 percent, and he acknowledged the need to promote systems for collection and reuse.

The amount of plastic bags introduced in the market may have decreased, but those already in circulation and dumped as waste still remain. A dump site in the suburbs of Nairobi was covered by plastic bags, and heaps of waste towering over 10 meters high that contain many plastic bags are buried inside. Cows and pigs were eating garbage inside bags nearby, as they did before the plastic ban.

Ouma said plastic bags are illegally taken from neighboring Uganda, and pointed out the need to strengthen cooperation with neighbors. A long-term commitment through cooperation among citizens, industry and neighboring countries is vital to realize a true reduction in plastic waste.

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Koizumi, Johannesburg Bureau)

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media