Where are we now?
Plasticbag ban

Verbot von Plastiktüten in Kenia Artikelbild
© Joni Gutierrez

In August 2017, Kenya enacted a total ban on the use, manufacture, and import of single-use plastic carrier bags. Although this is not the first ban—similar attempts were made in 2007 and 2013—it has by far been the most strictly enforced, with fines as high as​ ​$40,000​. Before the ban, supermarkets alone in Kenya distributed​ ​100 million plastic carrier bags​ a year, so by that figure alone, the ban has kept millions of new plastic bags out of the system.  

“We must remove the plastic blinds on our eyes and see the reality, that plastic is destroying the environment, and that we must change,” says James Wakibia, a Nakuru-based journalist who became one of the most visible proponents of the plastic ban. In the beginning, his goal was only to relocate a dumpsite in Nakuru town, “an eyesore.” But once the dumpsite was relocated, plastic waste continued to flake off and scatter throughout the town, which made Wakibia realize that there needed to be less plastic waste to begin with. While other waste would biodegrade, he said, most plastics could not be recycled and ended up in the wrong place. Before the ban, 4,000 tons of single-use plastic bags were ​produced​ in Kenya every month, and about half of this would ultimately end up in municipal waste streams. He began writing articles advocating for a plastic bag ban, sending them to newspapers around Kenya. Then the issue picked up traction on social media, which Wakibia says attracted attention from all around the world. 
When the ban was finally implemented, it was certainly a victory for advocates like Wakibia. But, with barely a transitional period and little warning for those all along the plastic carrier supply chain—from the manufacturers who produced them to ​kadogo 
​ traders who depended on them—the ban was met with mixed reactions. Not only are compliant alternatives more expensive than previous plastic bags, but, in the aftermath of the ban, hundreds of traders were arrested or​ ​fined​, sometimes up to the equivalent of weeks worth of wages. Critics have also made the point that the ban disproportionately affects the poor, especially those in the ​kadogo economy that depend on purchasing food and other products in small, daily units that were packaged before in plastic carriers. Often, the burden of switching to compliant materials is on small-scale traders.  
Another challenge has been plastic bag smuggling. “Law enforcement is not as serious as it was one year ago,” Wakibia says. “We have so many illegal plastic bags coming in from neighboring countries.” The UN Environment Programme has​ ​highlighted​ that the success of bans like Kenya’s plastic ban often depends simply on the ability to manage the cross-border flow of products. Then again, of the 127 national​ ​bans​ on single-use plastics currently in place, more than thirty are in African countries, which could create opportunities for regional cooperation—a ripple effect, even—in limiting the use and flow of certain single-use plastic products. 
Furthermore, because single-use plastic bags have, for the most part, been replaced by non-woven carriers, which are cloth-like in texture but still derived from polypropylene, the ban has in fact only replaced one kind of non-biodegradable material with another. In addition, so-called “compostable” plastic bags have also made headway in the market, but, in addition to being more expensive, most of these need to be processed in a specific way in order to 
disintegrate. This often requires the plastics to be digested at high temperatures for weeks, capacities that Kenya does not yet have. 
Though the ban was largely a step in the right direction, Leah Oyake-Ombis, professor at the University of Nairobi, argues that Kenya’s total ban obscures other conversations around plastic reduction, reuse, and recycling that could be more effective. Of course, alternatives like biodegradable bags are not always appropriate for local use—for example, neither maize flour nor liquids or oils, which were often packaged in plastic bags before the ban, do well inside non-woven bags.  
But she also points out that, given the current state of Kenya’s waste management system, there is incredible opportunity to make long-term, sustainable progress, outside of simply banning plastic bags. Oyake suggests taking a look at and supporting transitional recycling measures, like groups that collect commingled plastic waste and extrude them into materials that can be used for fencing and building. Before this ban, she says, many discussions were actually around increasing the thickness of the bags so they can be reused, or supporting transitional recycling systems in an informalized environment, all of which ultimately would help promote recycling efforts as they already exist in Kenya. 
She explains that in other countries, by the time that single-use carriers were introduced into the market, there were waste management systems already in place. In Kenya, plastic bags did not replace woven and paper bags until the 1980s, before Kenya had any kind of plastic production, let alone waste management systems that could provide a foundation for recycling programs. Right now, municipal trash collection in Kenya is still informal and unstandardized.  
The important part, after all, is to remember what the purpose of sustainability is, and whom sustainability policies affect. Even though the ban has played a crucial role in keeping plastic out of the system entirely—while before the ban,​ ​half​ of all plastic bags would end up in the solid waste stream—we cannot ban our way to sustainability. “The ban left behind a significant population who we need to walk along with,” she says. “Are we simply punishing the people who we perceive to be polluting more?” 
Though he agrees that the ban is far from a perfect solution, Wakibia believes that, in parallel with a strict policy like the plastic ban, it is crucial for the government to, at the very least, work with civil society to help the public understand the reason behind the policy. “Most people feel like they’re being punished, and it’s not as such,” he says. “There’s a need for awareness and education that the ban is here to protect their  [right to a] clean environment, as it is enshrined in the Constitution.”