Plastic wars: The Big Bag Fury


Prof Judi Wakhungu, the Environment CS, is fighting the battle of her life over plans to ban polyethene carrier bags.

Many Kenyan homes have that one prized polyethene bag that holds the smaller carriers acquired from supermarkets, kiosks, salons, or the occasional trip to grandma’s. The acquisition and hoarding comes naturally, as if springing from an insecure, primordial part of our being that wants to prepare for a testy tomorrow. Ants collect food rations for a rainy day; Kenyans collect plastic bags … for whatever reason.

And the demand has never been higher. The United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) estimates that supermarkets hand over more than 100 million polyethene bags to their customers annually. These end up in the kitchen cabinets of households all over the country, before they are finally discarded to give way to newer, more colourful, and more robust acquisitions.

Elsewhere around the world, the problem is subtle, hidden in garbage dumps and recycling centres. But in Kenya it is more in-your-face; you see it wherever you go, staring back at you from pavements, rubbish mounds, trees, drainage systems, playgrounds, backstreets, national parks. Wherever.

At the coast, Mr Suleiman Omar of the Watamu Marine Association, which uses plastic waste to make tourist artifacts, says they collected five metric tonnes of polyethene in just three hours during the World Ocean Clean-up Day a few months ago.

And, in Nairobi, Ms Catherine Ndirangu, who resides near the Southern By-pass, says she has witnessed first-hand what happens when people cannot manage their appetite for plastic.

“The by-pass was so beautiful when the government first opened it,” she says. “That is no more as motorists have been discarding all manner of waste as they drive by. The organics decompose in a matter of days, but the plastic stays on. Now the road is an eyesore.”

While most people are aware of the visible pollution — such as discarded water bottles and polyethene bags — majority of them are ignorant about the invisible side effects of plastics, which pose bigger risks to humans, animals and the entire ecosystem if they are not properly disposed of.

As a result, the government has, through a gazette notice, started the process of phasing out use of these carrier bags by outlawing their importation and manufacture. The ban takes effect at the end of August this year.

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, Prof Judi Wakhungu, says that, despite an outcry by manufacturers who say the move is ill-timed and and ill-conceived, the decision is final.

“This is the first time the government has gazzeted a ban on plastic bags,” she told HealthyNation last week. “Previous attempts at the same were mere declarations which might have not been taken seriously.”

The ban will only affect carrier plastic and flat bags, and not those used in primary packaging, the CS clarified.

“Companies dealing with floriculture and horticulture, and those that produce meat, sausages and so on will not be affected since they package for hygiene purposes, and there are very specific ways in which they do the packaging,” said Prof Wakhungu.

Critics of the government move say it runs the risk of back-firing as it is abrupt, targeted at businesses rather than consumers, and does not consider other ways of gradually phasing out the menace, such as taxation.

But Prof Wakhungu is adamant that there are no better ways of dealing with a problem that is choking the nation, and that taxation does not completely eliminate the risks.

“Why do you want me to start talking about tax on a pollutant that causes cancer and respiratory problems instead of eradicating it?” posed Prof Wakhungu, adding that the rising cases of cancer in the country could be connected to environmental contamination.

Environmental experts, who have long advocated for such bans, are this time confident that their wish will come to pass. Mr Gerphas Opondo, the director of the Environmental Compliance Institute, says that the inter-agency collaborative approach adopted in drafting the ban has ensured the buy-in of key stakeholders in the sector.

“The idea is no longer being handled by a single agency like before,” says Mr Opondo. “This time all the necessary agencies are working together.” Already, the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) has stopped issuing licenses to new manufacturers, and even those that were issued before will be revoked at the end of August.

The National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) also continues to tighten the noose on manufacturers and suppliers as the deadline draws. Retailers, the authority has warned, must clear stocks before August 28, and will be required to declare all the remaining stocks after that.

Mr David Ongare, the director of compliance and enforcement at Nema, says the authority has “transition arrangements in place.”  “We are, for instance, engaging supermarkets so that they help us in raising public awareness by minimising the plastic carrier bags they give out as we approach the deadline,” says Mr Ongare, adding that the ban is not a sentence against plastic manufacturers, but a long-delayed righting of an environmental wrong.

It is also Kenya’s attempt to follow a global trend on managing the use of plastic, which is threatening to choke the world.

Today our oceans are littered with trillions of pieces of plastic — bottles, bags, toys, fishing nets and more, mostly in tiny particles — and now, for the first time ever, this seaborne junk is making its way into the Arctic.

In a study published last month in Science Advances, researchers found that a major ocean current is carrying bits of plastic to the Greenland and Barents seas, and leaving them there — in surface waters, in sea ice and possibly on the ocean floor.

Because climate change is already shrinking the Arctic sea ice cover, more human activity in this still-isolated part of the world is increasingly likely as navigation becomes easier. As a result, reported the New York Times, plastic pollution, which has grown significantly around the world since 1980, could spread more widely in the Arctic in decades to come, the researchers say.

This, therefore, is not a Kenyan problem, and Prof Wakhungu is looking at the experiences of other economies on the management of the plastic waste. She, however, has a huge battle at hand, for every time a ban on plastic is proposed, manufacturers gang up to wave the joblessness card. And every time they have done that, it has worked.

For instance, in 2011, Nema declared a ban on plastic bags below 0.6 millimetres in thickness, but the directive failed. Four years earlier, in 2007, a similar ban had failed to take off after industry lobbyists prevailed upon the government to stop it, claiming that if implemented it would lead to massive job losses. At the time, estimates showed that at least two million plastic bags were issued to customers by supermarkets and grocery shops in Nairobi alone, daily.

Again, in 2014, the Nairobi City County came up with a proposed law, the Plastic Carry Bags Control Bill (2014), that sought to ban polyethene bags, non-biodegradable plastic bags and containers from virgin plastic of a thickness of not less than 30 microns and size not less than 8-by-12 inches.

At the time, according to a document by the environment department at City Hall, plastic bags constituted 70 per cent of all garbage collected in the city, stretching the county’s Sh1.5 billion annual allocation for garbage collection to the limit. The Bill never saw the light of the day.

And, just last year, the East African Legislative Assembly was forced to shelve debate on the EAC Polyethene Materials Control Bill, 2016 after strong opposition from Kenyan manufacturers. Job losses were, again, cited.

As the current debate rages, the Kenya Association of manufacturers (KAM) chief executive, Ms Phylis Wakiaga, says the ban will greatly affect the profit margins of more than 170 companies and could result in the loss of at least 60,000 jobs. To calculate the impact, the association is using the formula of one direct employee plus one indirect employee multiplied by 10 dependants.

KAM also accuses Prof Wakhungu of failing to follow due process while developing the legislation and its consequent gazettement. 

“There were no meetings and the gazette notice was not shared for any public participation before gazettement,” says Ms Wakiaga, adding that there was no impact assessment on the effects of a ban, which is a requirement under the Statutory Instruments Act.

Ms Wakiaga says manufacturers reached an agreement to have an excise tax for plastic bag manufacturers in 2007.

“We have been paying excise tax since 2007 for waste management as mandated by law, specifically for management of plastic waste by Nema, and these monies have not been applied for their intended use,” says the CEO. 

But Prof Wakhungu disputes KAM’s claims, saying the job loss figures floated by the association are exaggerated.

“Can they (KAM) produce their payroll to get the number of employees involved in production of plastic bags?” she poses. “They are lumping all the staff working in their various production lines together and saying they will all be affected.”

But, should Kenyans continue to cope with the filth of plastics because it employs some of them? Mr Opondo says that the environment has been dealt a massive blow that outweighs the economic gains the plastic industry brings to the table.

“The amount of resource the government spends to unblock drainages and clean the environment, and what people spend treating respiratory diseases, is so huge that you cannot compare it to the cost of shifting our packaging practices.”

Mr Evans Nangulu, a senior environmental chemist at the Kenya National Cleaner Production Centre, says that manufacturing companies do not have to close shops; they can be cushioned so that they go into making more sustainable packaging products and continue to offer employment to Kenyans.

“With the right policies and proper enforcement mechanisms, the plastic bags will be easily phased out,” the expert notes.

There is hope in the horizon, though. Already, some companies and supermarkets have begun to phase out the plastic bags. Nakumatt, for instance, now encourages its customers to purchase a reusable sisal bag which goes for between Sh50 and Sh70 to carry purchases.

A ‘bantastic’ idea, if well executed

The world uses between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags annually. Every year, we produce 300 million tonnes of plastic, and 78 per cent of it is not recycled! 

A ban on plastic bags in Rwanda spawned a thriving black market for the polythene, as wayward traders smuggled the commodity into the country from neigbouring countries, especially Kenya and Congo. Ms Amisha Patel, an environmental expert, says the new move may not be sustainable as it lacks proper structures. “The spirit of the ban is not wrong, but the approach leaves many questions to be answered,” she says, adding that since the ban was announced two months ago there has not been any directives from the government on the way forward. The silence, she continues, does not breathe confidence on how compliance should be achieved. 

Denmark: Retailers taxed for giving out plastic bags, since 2003.

Ireland:  €0.15 (Sh16.65) tax in 2002.

Wales: 5 pence charge on all plastic bags since 2011.

Italy: Banned the distribution of plastic bags in 2011.

Scotland: 5 per cent charge on all bags used in-store or online from 2014.

Germany: All stores that provide plastic bags pay a recycling tax.

USA: 20 states and 132 cities have either bans in place or pending as of July 2014.

Mexico: Fines stores for giving plastic bags to their customers since  2010.

Brazil: Imposed ban on plastic bags in October 2007.

Australia: Zero Waste programme in South Australia led to its light-weight bag ban in October 2008.

Africa: Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Morocco, South Africa, Somalia, Botswana, Cameroon and Ethiopia have bans and charges on plastic bags.

China: Total plastic bag ban since June 2008.

Bangladesh: Strict ban since 2002.

France: Charges between two and 42 per cent for reusable bags.

Belgium: Plastic bag tax since 2007.


2007: An attempt at cleaning up the country by banning the manufacture and import of bags of up to 0.03 millimetres (30 microns) widely failed. 

2011: The National Environmental Management Agency (Nema) declared a ban on plastic bags below 0.6 millimetres in thickness but no results were achieved by the move. 

2017: In 2017 the Cabinet Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources banned use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging under gazette notice number 2356. 

Marine litter: A mammoth challenge for our oceans

  • Marine litter harms over 660 marine species.
  • By 2050, an estimated 99 per cent of seabirds will have ingested plastic.
  • 15 per cent of species affected by ingestion and entanglement are endangered.

Kenya joins 15 other African countries, including Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Mauritania and Malawi, who have adopted or announced such bans. Rwanda, perhaps, has the firmest strategy, where passengers often have to hand over all their plastic bags at entry points. This has resulted in the country, which banned polyethylene bags in 2008, being cited as one of the cleanest in the globe. 

The world’s most efficient ban, however, did not involve a “bag ban” at all, but, instead, a “bag levy”. Introduced in Ireland in 2002, the law initially saw customers charged 15 euro per plastic bag. Within weeks, plastic bag use had fallen by 95 per cent, and 90 per cent of shoppers were using their own bags. 

South Africa banned certain bags in 2003 and taxed thicker ones, while Botswana put up a fee in 2007, with retailers reporting a 50 per cent drop in bag usage. Some 16 countries on the African continent have a plastic bag ban in place. 

Bangladesh and the Philippines have also banned the bags to protect the sewage systems and avoid floods.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Merab

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