Kenya’s Ban On Plastic Bags: Environmental Relief or a Driver of Unemployment?

Environmental sanity right now is a matter of global concern, particularly at a critical point when the globe is grappling with the vagaries of climate change. Kenya is no exception to global discourses around sustainable environmental conservation and the green economy, and the Kenyan government, through the Ministry of Environment earlier this year imposed a ban on the production, importation, distribution and usage of the non-biodegradable plastic bags which are used in most industrial sectors for packaging of finished commodities and carrying consumables from retail outlets. The ban progressively takes effect in September this year, when consumers and manufacturers will be faced with the somewhat harsh reality of absence of plastic bags from the market, yet an alternative has not been offered.

Kenya’s attempts to deal with plastic waste

This is not the first time that Kenya has made an attempt at banning the usage of plastic bags, as similar attempts were made in 2007 and later in 2011, both unsuccessfully, unlike Rwanda, the only country in the region, which has managed to do away with the environmental pollutants-The reasons being, that a biodegradable alternative hadn’t been offered. The latest move to ban plastic bag usage has not been welcomed by the private sector which comprises manufacturers and industrialists whose lines of production and nature of business demand an intensive usage of the bags. Some manufacturers actually produce plastic bags as their primary commercial concern, further compounding the effects of the ban, which would mean that such employers lay off staff, in cases of non-diversification of industrial production, which would be expected to be an avenue for such redundant labour to be reabsorbed into the economy.

Spiraling urban waste is a matter that continues to confront many a government world over, given the fact that the urban population is expected to exponentially grow to about 9 billion by 2050. Add that to the fact that the retail space is also growing fast, to cater for the escalating needs of the urban millennial who is increasingly spending heavily at malls and other retail chains. The Kenyan case thus becomes complex because of three reasons. One, no alternative has been offered by the government, to afford consumers the convenience of continued retail purchases. This leaves them in a quandary. Two, the move to ban plastic bags by the Kenyan government seems to destabilize industrial continuity by manufacturers who produce them for secondary use by retailers and other consumers. A walk into leading retail chains in Kenya today reveals the stark reality of what the ban on plastic bags can do, as customers are treated to episodes of having their merchandize wrapped in improvised packaging materials.

Finally, a derived consequence of the ban, although progressively, would mean that companies which produce the bags cut down on staff to reduce overheads, as some explore diversification options-As many have turned to waste-production and energy-generation. For instance, lately there has been a manufacturer who has downsized to 27 employees, from 2000 of them. The industrial and commercial outlook as a result of this ban could be a disastrous one, if no alternatives are offered to cushion consumers and manufacturers against near-future commercial uncertainties.

What Kenya needs to do

What Kenya can do is to intensify the recycling of waste, to empty our landfills. Currently, Kenya has fewer recycling plants compared to other countries like Austria which diverts 63% of its municipal solid waste from landfills. Kenya can successfully do that, because we heavily consume plastic products such as building eco-poles, furniture and other eco-accessories. All these have a market in Kenya, but the problem still remains the minimal recycling we are undertaking, versus the huge landfills we have in places like Dandora, a local dumpsite of international renown.

Secondly, Kenya can invest in contemporary solid waste management technologies. Currently, the recycling that happens is wholly rudimentary and does not fully promote the environmental tenets of the: REDUCE, REUSE AND RECYCLE mantra. Kenya's environmental and waste management tradition is centered around intense plastic(bag) usage, then the subsequent 'damage control' through recycling of waste into products such as eco-posts.