Plastic Bags Ban in Kenya

By HSE East Africa | Tuesday Aug 22, 2017

As of August 28, 2017, the ban on "the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging" in Kenya will take effect. This follows an announcement by the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, Prof. Judi W. Wakhungu through an official gazette notice No. 2356 (February 28, 2017).

The ban will apply to two categories of bags:

  1. the carrier bag, a "bag constructed with handles, and with or without gussets," and
  2. the flat bag, a "bag constructed without handles, and with or without gussets."

The announcement does not expressly state any penalties for violation of the ban. However, according to the Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act, No. 8 of 1999 upon which the ban is based, the penalties are severe. The Act states that;

Any person who contravenes against any provision of this Act or of regulations made thereunder for which no other penalty is specifically provided is liable, upon conviction, to imprisonment for a term of not less than one year but not more than four years, or to a fine of not less than two million shillings but not more than four million shillings [about US$ 38,835, or to both such fine and imprisonment or to both such fine and imprisonment.

The Problem

According to a study conducted in 2014, plastics comprise up to 20% of the 2,400 tons of solid waste generated in Nairobi daily. This amount of solid waste generation was expected to get worse by the day as a result of increasing population that is fuelled by large-scale rural-urban migration into the city.

There are several social, economic and environmental hazards associated with plastic bag littering. According to a report by UNEP, plastic bag litter causes, visual, noise and thermal pollution that affects sectors like tourism. Plastic bag litter also bocks drainage that occasion "traffic clogging" and urban flooding. Waste plastic litter blocks gutters and drains that creates serious water flooding, causes death to animals and marine life when ingested and it takes approximately 20 to 1000 years for waste plastic carrier bag to decompose. When filled with rainwater, plastic bag litter has been breeding grounds of mosquitoes.

The most destructive by-product of plastic carrier bag litter when incinerated, is the emission of "dioxins" and "furans", which are persistent organic pollutant in the environment. Their health impacts include cancer and acting as "endocrine disruptors" that affects the reproductive system of human and other living organisms.

Previous Bans

This is the third attempt to ban plastic bags in Kenya. In 2007, Kenya made a less ambitious attempt to curb the use of plastic bags; it sought to ban the manufacture and import of plastic bags up to 0.03 millimeters in thickness and imposed a universal 120% tax on plastic bag use. Then, in 2011, Kenya sought to do away with plastic bags up to 0.06 millimeters in thickness. Both of these initiatives were not implemented mainly due to opposition from polythene and plastic sector players in Kenya. The ban was seen as a threat to the local industry.

Instead of a blank ban on use of plastic bags, stakeholders in Kenya have suggested adjustment to specifications of polythene materials and the introduction of a levy to allow the National Environment Management Authority to manage the waste.

Policy Shift

The proposed ban signals a policy shift. In the past, at least going back to 2011, Kenya has consistently opposed proposals in the East African Legislative Assembly, the legislative arm of the five-member regional intergovernmental organization, the East African Community (EAC), of which Kenya is a member, to curb the manufacturing, sale, importation, and use of polythene materials, citing concerns that a ban would result in "massive job losses." While Kenya remains opposed to a regional ban on polythene, more recently it has softened its position to support the imposition of a tax on plastic bag use.

Of all members of the East African Community, only Rwanda has so far successfully banned all plastic bags since 2008, and replaced them with paper bags.

Globally, the ban on plastic bags has been enforced in several countries with varying degrees of success. The Bangladesh government was the first to do so in 2002, imposing a total ban on the bag after the occurrence of floods from 1988 to 1998 that submerged two-thirds of the country in water. Such a ban has also been applied in countries such as Rwanda, China, Taiwan and Macedonia. Some countries in Western Europe impose a fee per bag. Bans, partial bans, and fees have been enacted by some local jurisdictions in North America, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Myanmar. Concurrently with the reduction in lightweight plastic bags, shops have introduced reusable shopping bags.

In most of the countries that have successfully implanted the bans, the process has involved the manufacturers and retailers. The Rwandan government for instance gave tax breaks for companies to recycle instead of manufacture plastic bags, and created a new market for environmentally friendly bags.

Challenges

Similar to previous attempts, the implementation of the current ban faces numerous challenges. The ban has been opposed by plastic bags manufacturers who have warned that the ban will lead to the loss of about 60,000 jobs directly, and another 400,000 indirectly. Through their lobby, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, the industries pleaded with the government to consider their proposal for a waste management programme through the Finance Bill 2017.

There are also claims that the proposal to substitute the plastic bags with biodegradable bags may not be feasible. This is mainly attributed to the low tear strength of biodegradable packaging bags. They also have a high rate of water absorption. There is also doubt on the technological capacity to produce biodegradable material within the country.

There have been questions on suitable alternatives for uses such as garbage bin liners which are categorized as flat bags. NEMA has since clarified that such liners will be exempted from the ban subject to meeting the set specifications and are labelled appropriately. The same conditions apply for biomedical waste bin liners. It is however not clear if the garbage collectors are aware of the said specifications.

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