Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Kenya: Containing the Plastic Bags Menace

ANDnetwork .com -- It has been termed South Africa’s national flower and Ireland’s national flag, but the plastic bag has made a name for itself in Kenya, too.

Anywhere you go in Kenya, there’s no avoiding it.

At the supermarket, fruits and vegetables are bagged once and then again just to make sure they don’t come in contact with the bagged milk carton or the bagged bar of soap.

At a street kiosk, a banana is handed over in a flimsy black plastic bag, only to be eaten immediately after. The buyer, ready to chomp down on his snack, leaves the bag on the ground.

Outside, plastic bags decorate Kenya’s landscape like fields of flowers. Thin and flimsy, they get caught in trees and pile up in water bodies.

In Kenya, 4,000 tons of plastic bags are produced each month, with only about half going through waste management. The other half is left piling up in our environment and, in some cases, our homes.

And the way things are now, the unavoidable mess of plastic bags is here to stay – they each take up to 1,000 years to degrade.

But before the scourge becomes unstoppable and irreversible, a pilot project in Nairobi is looking to change the environmental degradation caused by plastic bags by encouraging three simple principles – reuse plastic bags, recycle the ones you have used and avoid plastic bags entirely.

Partnership between Unep and Nema

The project is a partnership between UN environment agency Unep and the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) – a parastatal. Since it was launched in July, the pilot project has involved various interested parties in trying to break away from a plastic dependence.

It seeks to make sure Nairobians, and eventually all Kenyans, become responsible plastic users.

Undoubtedly, the introduction of plastic changed our world. It is lightweight, cheap to produce and a functional way to carry goods. Plastic largely replaced paper bags, helping to reduce deforestation.

It is for these reasons that plastic bags became so popular and their production increased.

But here and in other developing countries, a problem emerged. According to Mr Desta Mebratu, the Unep officer working on the pilot project, consumers have become dependent on plastic without the proper infrastructure to support the dependence.

"The infrastructure is not developing itself in such a way that it can take care of all the waste coming from society," he said.

According to Practical Action, an advocacy group, plastic makes up 20 per cent of the urban waste generated in Nairobi everyday. Only about 25 per cent of it is collected, mostly from higher-income estates.

What’s more, said Nema officer Mwai Wanjohi, plastic waste is more costly to recycle than others because it must be separated from other solid waste before being processed. There is a reluctance from industries to take on that extra cost, he said.

The result: Plastic doesn’t get collected or recycled and is often left in the environment. Not only do the bags become a blight on our landscape, but they also cause environmental problems.

For one, the sprawling plastic waste we leave behind is picked up by animals, who can choke on them. "When you carry your mandazi in a plastic bag and then leave it in the environment, I want to tell you that you have killed an animal," said Mr Joseph Ngondi, an officer with the Green Belt Movement, the environmental NGO founded by Tetu MP Wangari Maathai.

Furthermore, according to a Unep report released last year, plastic bags clog rivers and waterways and make soil infertile.

And since garbage collection is insufficient in Nairobi, especially in its slum areas, there is a tendency to burn piles of it, including plastic bags, which release small amounts of chemicals such as lead and cadmium into the atmosphere, Mr Ngondi said.

Technology has tried to keep up. Last year, Nakumatt supermarkets introduced environmentally friendlier bags, which degrade in 10 to 12 months. But Mr Ngondi said the technology is questionable. Unless the plastic bag is made out of completely natural products, it will degrade and become invisible to the naked eye, but any synthetic elements will still pollute the environment, he said.

The plastic bag problem isn’t limited to Kenya, of course. Countries around the world have had to deal with the ever-increasing use and misuse of plastics, especially the bags. Some, like Rwanda, have resorted to drastic measures such as the outright banning of all plastic imports, while others have limited the bag thickness to encourage re-use – thinner, flimsier bags are less likely to be re-used, Mr Wanjohi said.

There are tried and tested strategies for dealing with plastic bags, but Mr Mebratu explained that each country must find which ones fit within its economic and social possibilities.

The Nairobi pilot project intends to find and implement appropriate policies that promote the re-using, recycling or complete avoidance of plastic bags.

While a total plastics ban may have worked in Rwanda, Mr Mebratu said, the tactic is not likely to happen in Kenya, which has a larger plastics manufacturing sector. "If you are to stop producing plastics, we will lose jobs," Mr Ngondi said.

Mr Mebratu agreed: "Plastics are part of modern society and they have significantly contributed to the well-being of people."

He said the team working on the pilot project had not been pushing for a total ban, but rather a phasing out of the flimsy, thinner bags that are less likely to be re-used and therefore more likely to end up as litter.

"It’s not about banning a product as such," he said. "It’s about making a rational utilisation of that product."

Mr Ngondi said Kenyans were not aware of the gravity of the problem, and they won’t use plastics rationally unless they were enticed to do so.

One way to encourage them is to introduce a levy fee, which would in some way charge shoppers for every bag they use. The pilot project participants support the levy, but Mr Mebratu said it "isn’t being suggested as an immediate action."

Mr Clive Mutunga, an officer at the Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra), which is working on the project, said the design of this levy remains uncertain – would consumers be forced to pay for bags at the till, or would supermarkets, for instance, be charged for the quantity they distribute?

Nonetheless, he said a levy would discourage people from being wasteful of plastic bags. "We’re trying to make it expensive for people to shop using plastic bags," said Mr Benjamin Langwen, a Nema deputy director.

But what alternatives are there for people who want to avoid bags? "Long ago, we used to go to the market with baskets," said Mr Ngondi, who supports re-usable and durable fabric bags.

Mr Phiagarajan Ramamurthi, the Nakumatt director of operations, said the company planned to introduce woven bags in the next two months. "Initially we’ll probably give them out for free and after that we may charge something and see how people react," he added.

Option of returning bags

Nakumatt distributes 50 million plastic bags a year. Mr Ramamurthi said that while it was company policy to separate products by wrapping them in different plastic bags, the company has reduced its plastics use by 15 per cent over the past six months.

Nakumatt also offers customers the option of returning their plastic bags to the store, which will then ensure they are properly sorted and recycled, Mr Ramamurthi said.

The pilot project wraps up in July, when people involved hope to begin implementing policies, both in government and the private sector.

And while the exact policies that might solve Kenya’s plastic bags problem are not entirely clear just yet, there’s hope that eventually, change will come.

"This is a manageable problem. Almost all countries have passed through this stage and they have dealt with it," Mr Mebratu said. "Here in Kenya it can also be managed."

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