KIKUYU, Kenya ― Early in the morning, Alice Wangui prepares to open her vegetable stall in the outdoor Kinoo Market, some 13 miles northwest of central Kenya. She unpacks ginger, red bell peppers, zucchini, onions and tomatoes, hanging them under a colorful umbrella that shields them from the rising sun.
A man pulls up on a motorcycle and drops off a bundle of reusable shopping bags at Wangui’s booth. Made from polypropylene, a type of plastic that is more durable and easier to recycle, these thicker tote bags are supposed to be long-lasting.
Since Kenya initiated a strict plastic bag ban in 2017, with heavy penalties for those who flout it, these alternative tote bags line the stalls like Wangui’s throughout the market, ready for customers who haven’t brought their own reusable bags. There’s much less plastic on the streets now, said Wangui.
Before the ban was introduced, grocery stores in the country were handing out over 100 million bags per year, despite a lack of waste disposal infrastructure to keep them out of the environment. Plastic bags clogged waterways and drainage systems, which made flooding worse during the rainy season. More than half of all cattle near cities and towns had plastic in their stomachs, according to a government-supported study, and in Nairobi, some slaughterhouses were removing up to 20 plastic bags from inside cows.
Kenya’s plastic ban followed in the footsteps of Rwanda and Morocco, and these initiatives have led other East African countries like Tanzania to also introduce a complete ban on lightweight plastic bags. In total, according to a United Nations December 2018 report, there are 34 bag bans or taxes across the African continent.
These countries join dozens of others around the world in their efforts to tackle pervasive plastic pollution. Across the U.S., more than 400 cities and states have bag bans or taxes on plastic bags. And by next year, the European Union’s ban on single-use plastic items like straws, forks, spoons and plates will go into effect.
Kenya, however, is considered to have the strictest penalties in the world, making manufacturing, importing or selling single-use carriers punishable by a prison sentence of up to four years or fines up to $40,000. Anyone caught using them also faces a fine, which so far has been between $300 and $1,500, and a possible prison sentence of up to a year.
But there are some exceptions to the law: certain kinds of single-use plastic bags are still allowed for garbage bin liners, medical waste, construction and for packaging foods like bread, as well as the use of cling film (like Saran wrap).
Two years on, as the country prepares to roll out new limits on more single-use plastic items ― banning plastics from parks and beaches effective June 2020 ― the success of Kenya’s bag ban remains mixed.
Officials, activists and local vendors are among those who say the law is responsible for cleaner streets and there is some evidence that plastic bag use has been drastically reduced. But, even with the harsh penalties, plastic bag pollution hasn’t been completely eliminated in Kenya, and plastic bags ― both legal and illegal ― continue to make their way onto the country’s streets.
And one of the biggest questions remains: How do you create a bag ban that works?
According to an internal assessment by Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), 80% of the population has stopped using plastic carrier bags since the ban was adopted.
The ban is a resounding success, says Dr. Charles Lange, director of environmental planning at NEMA. Before, unsightly clumps of plastic bags used to hang from trees and buildings, he said. “Towns … are now visibly cleaner.”
There are positive environmental voices too. “I can without a doubt say there has been a great improvement,” said James Wakibia, an environmental activist who campaigned for the ban. “Streets, drains, sewer lines, rivers that were once very polluted with plastic bags are much cleaner. We still have plastic in the environment, though, but I appreciate where we have come from.”
Part of Kenya’s plastic ban strategy hinges on its strict penalties. As of August 2019, more than 500 arrests ― mostly traders, small-scale businesses and citizens found with banned bags ― have been made, and about 300 people have been prosecuted, according to NEMA, which is tasked with enforcing the ban.
“The ban had to be drastic, and harsh, otherwise Kenyans would have ignored it,” Wakibia told National Geographic earlier this year.
At one point Nairobi’s Burma market was shut down by authorities for its widespread noncompliance. During the first year of the ban, many of those targeted by officials patrolling the streets were manufacturers and sellers of banned bags, rather than users.
Many have come to rely on a range of alternatives, including bowls and buckets, as well as reusable fabric or polypropylene tote bags made from a type of plastic that’s thicker and easier to recycle. Traditional Kiondo bags woven from sisal fibers are also having a popular resurgence in cities. But these come with their own challenges: Bowls and buckets can spill over, totes are drastically more expensive, and there’s been an influx of cheaper imported non-woven bags, which tend to be much lower quality than those manufactured nationally, and which often cannot be recycled.
These polypropylene bags, many of which come from China, are proving a particular challenge, said the Kenyan Association of Manufacturers, which staunchly opposed the plastic bag ban, and even tried, unsuccessfully, to stop it in court.
“The Chinese imports are lightweight products negating the whole idea of the ban,” said Abel Kamau, KAM’s manufacturing sector officer. These bags are often of such low quality that they aren’t truly reusable ― many are thrown away after a single use.
The government responded by implementing quality standards for polypropylene bags in August 2019, effectively banning the cheap, low-quality imported bags. But there remains confusion about what is allowed and the imported bags are still flowing into the country.
According to Wangui, government officials have not properly helped educate market traders on which bags are legally allowed. There is a “lack of clarity,” she says. She constantly fears being fined for selling a banned bag.
“I am afraid of the penalties,” says Wangui. “The problem is not observing the ban but the knowledge of what is banned and what is not banned.”
Ayub Macharia, the director of education and awareness at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, however, argues the ban is not too drastic and that society was prepared. “Kenya started the plastic ban conversation over 10 years before the ban,” he says. “We decided the country was better off without plastic bags, hence the ban.”
The demand for plastic bags hasn’t gone away, especially for items that have a lot of liquid and might leak. Small, transparent, single-use plastic bags, banned under the law, have started making their way back into the market. These cheap, flimsy bags often used by vendors to pack vegetables are being smuggled in from countries like Uganda and Somalia.
“They are illegally sold and of very poor quality compared to the previous bags,” said Vaishali Malde, sales and marketing manager at plastic bags manufacturer Packaging Industries Limited.
Ultimately, plastic trash hasn’t disappeared entirely from Kenya over the past two years ― especially in poorer areas ― despite the plastic bag ban and efforts to curb illegal imports.
Bad solid waste management and lack of infrastructure to manage waste is still a big challenge in slum areas, said Wakibia. In the absence of organized cleanups, he said, there are informal efforts by various groups, especially civil society, to collect general waste, including old plastic. But, he notes, “even where such plastic is collected there is currently no better way to deal with it sustainably except discarding it in landfills or just burning it, which itself is a threat to health.”
As urbanization increases, so too does the waste. Around 4.4 million tons of solid waste is produced each year in Kenya ― and this is expected to double within the next 10 years. In 2016, authorities acknowledged that solid waste disposal was a major challenge for the country’s capital, Nairobi, which produces nearly 2,500 tons of waste each day. The city has more than 150 private-sector waste operators which each act independently and there’s virtually no government enforcement of laws or regulations.
With over 170 plastic bag manufacturers in the country, the ban on single-use plastic bags wasn’t favored by everyone. Though plastic manufacturers first tried to stop the ban, some are now making an effort to help shape the way forward.
Companies have been proposing their own solutions since the ban went into effect ― often designed to be self-managed ― for plastic waste collection and recycling. And, after first opposing the ban in court, the manufacturers association is now working closely with the government to tackle the issue.
In October 2017, two months after Kenya’s plastic bag ban came into effect, KAM, NEMA and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry established an official task force to tackle plastic waste. The aim was to establish a framework for successful recycling and take-back schemes.
As part of this, under its 2019 Plastic Action Plan, KAM proposed a solution where manufacturers pay a fee for all the plastic they introduce into the market. These fees would then be used to fund the collection, processing and recycling of the waste by a third-party company.
Macharia told HuffPost that this plan ― known as extended producer responsibility ― will be in place by June 2020. The plan builds on the informal collection networks that already exist, and funnels new money into the country’s recycling industry.
The government will also expand this to go beyond plastic waste. Companies will be required to show how they plan to dispose of their waste in order to obtain licenses for importing and manufacturing products. The license can be revoked if they don’t comply and penalties will be listed under the extended producer responsibility regulation.
“All will be required is for manufacturers to declare monthly the tons of waste the company has released into the market and fund the institution to collect the specific tons, sort and clean them before handing them in for recycling,” Malde explained.
“Both the public and private sector have to take responsibility for waste and creating awareness of waste management,” said Macharia, who hopes greater public awareness will spur behavioral change.
The government should try to improve the current bag ban, too, said Malde. Cracking down harder on the imported totes of lesser quality ― which are cheaper than locally made ones ― would ensure fairer market competition, and hopefully support the success of truly reusable and recyclable bags, she said. And she suggests paying people a small fee to reward them for returning their plastic bags for recycling.
Dr. Leah Oyake-Ombis, an environmental consultant and part time lecturer at the University of Nairobi, advocates for financial penalties as a way of changing behavior. She said that the government “should have introduced new economic instruments like punitive measures,” such as charging for plastic bags to help reduce the amount used and wasted, rather than implement a ban.
But others are more positive about the potential of plastic bag bans. Charles Akol, an environmental affairs officer at the United Nations Economic Commision for Africa, wants other countries to emulate Kenya’s plastic bag ban along with encouraging the private sector to invest in sustainability initiatives. “Such green businesses will allow for cheap and accessible alternatives to plastics to flourish,” said Akol, adding more public education on the issue is needed.
But even as Africa leads the world in the number of single use plastic bans, Nancy Githaiga, a policy manager at WWF-Kenya, says much more needs to be done.
People across all social classes need to be engaged in the issue of plastic waste and the implications of dumping it, she said. “There is also a need for a policy advocacy at the East African regional and Africa-wide level to lobby for a region-wide ban on single-use plastics to address the illegal proliferation of plastics from other countries that use them.”
Githaiga said other countries need to learn from Kenya’s struggles in order to create a holistic, well-planned phase-out of problematic single-use plastic. The key, she said, is to provide consumers with access to alternatives, and support just transitions for businesses impacted by the ban. Governments then must also do their part to have the systems and regulations in place to provide a clean, healthy environment for its citizens.
Githaiga is on the fence about whether, all things considered, the ban has been effective. “Areas that used to be littered with plastic bags such as the game parks and most urban areas are free of them. But, on the other hand, [it has not been] fully successful as illegal single plastic carriers proliferate and are used in the country due to weak enforcement of laws.”
Wangui hopes that the government is able to make sure more wasteful plastic bags don’t creep back into the market. “My sincere hope is to see them crack down on these packaging bags before they become a common use again,” she said. “It feels good to live in a cleaner environment.”