Eight months on, is the world's most drastic plastic bag ban working?

Kenya’s ban comes with the world’s stiffest fines and some businesses are struggling to find affordable alternatives, but in Nairobi’s shanty towns the clean-up is changing lives
Jonathan Watts The Guardian 25 Apr 18;

Waterways are clearer, the food chain is less contaminated with plastic – and there are fewer “flying toilets”.

A year after Kenya announced the world’s toughest ban on plastic bags, and eight months after it was introduced, the authorities are claiming victory – so much so that other east African nations Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan are considering following suit.

But it is equally clear that there have been significant knock-on effects on businesses, consumers and even jobs as a result of removing a once-ubiquitous feature of Kenyan life.

“Our streets are generally cleaner which has brought with it a general ‘feel-good’ factor,” said David Ong’are, the enforcement director of the National Environment Management Authority. “You no longer see carrier bags flying around when its windy. Waterways are less obstructed. Fishermen on the coast and Lake Victoria are seeing few bags entangled in their nets.”

Ong’are said abattoirs used to find plastic in the guts of roughly three out of every 10 animals taken to slaughter. This has gone down to one. The government is now conducting a proper analysis to measure the overall effect of the measure.

The draconian ban came in on 28 August 2017, threatening up to four years’ imprisonment or fines of $40,000 (£31,000) for anyone producing, selling – or even just carrying – a plastic bag.

In Nairobi’s shanty towns, one immediate impact was on the practice of defecating in a plastic bag, tying it up and then throwing it on to the tin roofs, a convenience known as “flying toilets”.

“I don’t know when the flying toilets started, but they are not good,” says Johnson Kaunange, a wheelchair user. “You never know where they are going to land or where they will fall when it rains. My wheelchair often rolls over the bags and splits them, and then the stink on the wheels is disgusting.”

In the Mathare community, this is good news. Since the ban was introduced, many more people are using a communal toilet, which charges 5 Kenyan shillings (4p) for single use or 100 shillings for a month-long family pass.

The facility is on the bustling thoroughfare leading down into Mathare valley. One of the administrators Caleb Omondi said he has already noticed a difference now that flying toilets are effectively prohibited.

“The number of users is now much higher. We used to get about 300 people a day. Now it’s over 400,” he said. “I’m overjoyed. This is making the community cleaner and we get more income.”

In broader society, the ban appears to be working, albeit imperfectly. Among the hundreds of people who walk the street, there are only two who are carrying or selling plastic bags.

Elijia, who preferred not to give his family name, is a young man who says he has to use a plastic bag to carry his beloved khat because it keeps the moisture far more effectively than a paper bag. “I’m worried about the police, of course, but I’m not a bad person,” he says.

The other is Esther, a stallholder who sells fried chips for 20 shillings (15p) a bag. She sighs when the subject is mentioned. A clutch of red, orange and green biodegradable fibre bags pinned to the wall behind her show her efforts to meet the conditions of the ban, but it is clearly eating into already slim margins. The new bags are six times more expensive than plastic. Customers refuse to pay extra and there are no subsidies from the government so she has to swallow the extra cost. “My business is badly affected,” she complained. “I’m not against a plastic ban, but there should be a cheap alternative.”

Of course, any indiction has to come with enforcement, and this has not always been pretty.

In the eight months since the ban was introduced, local media have charted the crackdown on “plastic bag dealers.” In February, more than 50 people were arrested in raids in Mombasa, Kisii, Keroka and Bomet. Authorities also shut down Nairobi’s Burma market for widespread noncompliance.

In Mathare, a group of slums home to half a million people, one local trader, nicknamed Onya, was arrested after police caught him using plastic bags to sell chicken heads. The judge fined him 15,000 shillings (£110), much lower than the maximum penalty but equivalent to six weeks’ work. “That seems harsh for a new law,” said one of his customers.

Other stallholders are asking their customers to bring plastic bowls or traditional bags made from sisal fibre. This has led to complaints. The bowls spill easily. The sisal bags are expensive because the plants, which were once common, have been replaced by cash crops.

There has been push-back. On 1 March, the manufacturer, Hi-Plast filed a lawsuit against the government for compensation and argued the ban has been selectively implemented.

In Kenya as a whole, the prohibition on plastic bags has caused headaches for retailers and manufacturers.

“The ban has shaken the economy. In several areas, business is at a standstill,” said Samuel Matonda of the Kenyan manufacturers association, who complains that the policy should have been introduced gradually.

He estimates 80% of member companies are affected and close to 100,000 people have been laid off because the outlawing of flat plastic bags has been very broadly interpreted to include almost all packaging, which hurts exporters of food and flower products to Tesco, Walmart and Carrefour, as well as producers of pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals.

Matonda is now part of a panel that is working with the government to create more exemptions and put a greater emphasis on improving waste management.

“It’s a stimulus,” he says. “The ban has undoubtedly aroused more public awareness of the need for a clean environment. We have achieved more in six months than in the previous five years.”

The environment ministry says the attitude of manufacturers has changed. “The companies are now coming by themselves to offer solutions,” said Ong’are. With PET bottles next in the government’s sights, companies are proposing a self-management scheme to organise collection and recycling.

There is still a long way to go. The ban could add to problems not just for rich manufacturers but for poor communities unless there are policies to provide cheap alternatives. But at Mathare, a football ground once covered in six feet of plastic waste is testimony to the benefits that can flow from an improved environment.

As in other countries with similar bans, the policy is still being refined, but it has support. “It should definitely encourage other countries around the world, and not just in Africa, to ban plastic bags and other single-use plastics,” said Dr Arnold Kreilhuber, head of international environmental law at UN Environment.

“It is however important to engage in as much public consultation as possible to ensure a smooth transition through the ban to implementation. Banning plastic bags is a big win, but it’s just the beginning. We need more investment in waste management to guarantee Kenyans a clean and healthy environment.”

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