Africa, Environment, Headlines

KENYA: Plastic Bags: Convenience Costing the Earth

NAIROBI, Jan 21 2010 (IPS) - When Nairobi was founded in 1899, it took its name from what the Maasai called the place: Ewassi Nyirobi, “cool waters.” A century later, the river has something stuck in its throat: millions of plastic bags threaten to choke it.

People, pigs and marabou stork sift through the garbage at Dandora Park. Credit:  Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

People, pigs and marabou stork sift through the garbage at Dandora Park. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

According to Robert Orina, chief enforcement officer at Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), only about 25 percent of the 1,500 tonnes of solid waste generated in Nairobi each day is collected. In slum areas, where 60 percent of Nairobi residents live, there is no formal garbage collection.

“The result is there is garbage strewn all over the place and most of this is stuffed into plastic bags which remain in the environment for many years,” Orina says. “The situation in Nairobi is not unique but rather is replicated across the country.”

He says residents and manufacturers of plastic bags are both to blame for the environmental challenge the country is facing. According to him, residents take little care in disposing of their rubbish, while manufacturers of plastic bags have resisted a ban imposed by the government on the use of flimsy plastic bags thinner than 30 microns.

According to research done by NEMA and the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) in 2005, 100 million plastic bags are handed out annually in Kenya by supermarkets alone, the vast majority destined to end up in the environment, clogging sewers and drains, polluting soil, posing a danger to marine life and causing death to livestock when inadvertently consumed.

Orina says, “Millions of plastic bags are dished out annually in supermarkets. Most are so flimsy that they can only be used once and thus they end up being thrown out into the environment where they take hundreds of years to decompose posing a danger.”


Pieces of these plastic bags mix with soil and prevent rainwater from soaking into the ground, contributing to the formation of standing pools of water, the breeding ground for all manner of waterborne diseases.

Orina warns that the practice of burning plastic to dispose of it is not not a viable solution. He argues plastics contain substances which when burned release toxic chemicals, including dioxins, which have been linked with cancer.

While there are companies recycling plastic in Kenya, Geoffrey Okora, of Ramji Haribhai Devani Limited says narrow profit margins mean there are only a handful of other enterprises like the one he manages.

“We buy plastics for recycling, however, the existing organisations are not able to absorb the huge amount of plastics in the environment. Furthermore the profit margin gained from recycling plastic is minimal compared and most organisations would rather not venture in this area. And when they do, they prefer to limit themselves to hard plastics as opposed to the flimsy plastics,” Okora says.

But attempts to rid Kenya’s environment of plastic bags have been met with resistance from manufacturers and consumers alike.

Nearly five years ago, NEMA recommended a ban on plastic bags; the government slapped a 120 percent tax on manufacturers producing thin, single-use plastic bags.

However, this move met resistance from Kenya Association of Manufacturers who pleaded for a transitional grace period. They warned that imposing such a tax would mean an increase on prices for basic commodities such as milk, bread and sugar, Orina says.

Evans Githenji, the spokesperson for Kenya’s plastics industry, confirms that manufacturers felt the 120 percent tax was too high and appealed to the government to review it downwards to 50 percent.

“What we further recommended was that instead of collecting it as a tax levy which ends up at Treasury and is used in other sectors such as health and education, we recommended it be categorized as a specific levy and the proceeds should go towards handling of plastics at the recycling level.”

Orina says he’s not sure what happened to the policy, since the flimsy bags are still on the market, and the 50 percent levy does not appear to have ever been collected.

One solution gaining ground in Kenya is to make bags out of oxo-biodegradable plastic. This involves producing plastic with an additional chemical that enables it to quickly break down when dumped in a natural environment.

“Oxo-biodegradable plastic decomposes more quickly than straw and twigs and much more quickly than ordinary or recycled plastic. It is intended for plastic which gets out into the open environment and cannot realistically be collected. It will automatically self-destruct, but ordinary or recycled plastic will blow or float around for decades,” says Michael Stephen, director of UK-based Symphony Environmental Technologies.

But Symphony’s claim that its plastic is broken down as naturally as grass clippings or twigs has been challenged in other places where it has been introduced.

Orina and Githenji express doubt over the completeness of decomposition, arguing small particles of the degraded matter may find its way into the food chain. The solution for Kenya, they both agree, is to take a diverse approach.

NEMA is promoting replacing plastic with durable, re-usable bags to reduce the sheer volume of plastic in circulation, says Orina.

“What has been lacking is government will to carry out a proper campaign on dealing with the plastics environmental menace. What is needed is for the government to set up clear mechanisms on the collection of the 50 percent levy. This money should then be put in a consolidated fund which should go towards recycling of plastics and the general improvement of the environment,” Githenji says.

 
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