Nairobi debates plastic bag ban

Tuesday June 24 2014

In what could completely alter the way Kenya shops, Nairobi is planning to ban the use of plastic bags in favour of bio-degradable material. This means you may face prosecution should you, for instance, carry your farm produce to the city in a polythene bag. PHOTO/FILE

In what could completely alter the way Kenya shops, Nairobi is planning to ban the use of plastic bags in favour of bio-degradable material. This means you may face prosecution should you, for instance, carry your farm produce to the city in a polythene bag. PHOTO/FILE 

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In what could completely alter the way Kenya shops, Nairobi is planning to ban the use of plastic bags in favour of bio-degradable material.

And, while the legislation is being debated at City Hall, it could have far-reaching consequences across the country as it not only seeks to ban the manufacture of the controversial bags within the county, but also restrict use of the same for whatever purpose, and from wherever.

This means you may face prosecution should you, for instance, carry your farm produce to the city in a polythene bag.

The Nairobi City County Plastic Carry Bags Control Bill (2014) was moved earlier this month by Jubilee leader in the Nairobi County Assembly Abdi Hassan Guyo, and seeks to ban recycled, non-biodegradable plastic bags and containers from virgin plastic of thickness of not less than 30 microns and size not less than 8-by-12 inches.

The bags to be banned are polyethylene terephthalate, high density polyethylene, Poly Vinyl Chlorine (commonly used in PVC pipes), low density polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene.

A number of these are manufactured using fossil fuels and an assortment of chemicals that are not only harmful to animals, but are an environmental nightmare in cities.

They have also been blamed for blocking drainage and sewer systems and at times causing floods in the cities.

Polythene bags, according to a document by the environment department at City Hall, constitute 70 per cent of all garbage collected in the city, stretching Nairobi’s Sh1.5 billion annual allocation for garbage collection to the limit and, says Guyo, tying up money that could otherwise be used for development.

The Bill, if passed, would create a law that prohibits retailers from wrapping or giving shoppers such bags, while the government would be forced to issue new guidelines to manufacturers to produce bags that meet the new regulations.

And, because these bags will be more expensive to procure, “supermarkets and other retailers will sell them to consumers, alongside other goods, at a standard price”, says Guyo.

That means you may soon start paying for every bag that a supermarket uses to pack your shopping.

The more you shop, the higher the packaging bill.

To ensure and commit manufacturers to produce quality bags, the Bill requires them to print their name, address, registration, number, size, thickness and nature of plastic from which it is made, and its codification.

“We are driving out fake manufacturers whose sub-standard paper bags fail frequently,” says Guyo, who is also the Matopeni/Spring Valley MCA.

“We are determined to push the implementation of this law and ensure it is not hijacked by groups with vested interests.

It is a very significant law for posterity.”

Plastic first became widespread in the mid-20th century. Since then, about six billion tonnes have been manufactured worldwide, and much of that has ended up as trash — and nobody knows what will become of it.

As Nairobi debates the future of its plastics, researchers have discovered an unexpected way that some of that waste is persisting: as a new type of stone.

The substance, called plastiglomerate, is a fusion of natural and manufactured materials. Melted plastic binds together sand, shells, pebbles, basalt, coral and wood, or seeps into the cavities of larger rocks to form a rock-plastic hybrid.

The resulting materials, researchers report in the journal GSA Today, will probably be long-lived and could even become permanent markers in the planet’s geologic record.

“Most conventional plastic is relatively thin and fragments quickly,” said Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at Plymouth University in England. “But what’s being described here is something that’s going to be even more resistant to the ageing process.”

Plastiglomerate was discovered in 2006 by Charles Moore, a sea captain and oceanographer at the Algalita Marine Research Institute in California, US. Moore was surveying plastic washed up on Kamilo Beach, a remote, polluted stretch of sand on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Like other southeastern shorelines in the Hawaiian archipelago, Kamilo Beach accumulates garbage because of how currents circulate.

Spotting the odd plastic-covered rock assemblages, Moore took a few photographs and collected some specimens.

At first, Moore hypothesised that lava from the nearby Kilauea volcano created the plastiglomerates, but flows have not approached the beach for at least a century.

Interviews with local residents revealed a more likely explanation: bonfires.

Kamilo Beach’s sand is laced with degraded pollutant particles called “plastic confetti.”

This makes it virtually impossible to find a bonfire spot free of plastic waste, Corcoran said.

She also heard that some locals intentionally burned plastic in an effort to get rid of it.

Kamilo Beach’s plastiglomerates are probably not unique. Plastic is found around the world, as are bonfires.

And in Kenya, people regularly burn garbage to dispose of it.

Nairobi’s new Bill is a significant environmental step as many scientists now believe the planet has entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene, in which human activity is leaving a vast and durable imprint on the natural world.

Along with building materials, tools and atmospheric signatures, plastiglomerates could be future markers of humanity’s time on earth.

Disposal of plastic bag has been an environmental nightmare for many cities across the world.

But, while banning manufacture of the bags is normally easy on paper, it is a huge challenge — for one major reason: industry players are deep-pocketed due to the huge market demand for such bags, and so can easily grease palms and compromise government officials to relax such bans.

Sunit Chandaria of Paper Bags Ltd, however, sees this as an opportunity to right a wrong that has persisted for a long time, and that has survived numerous legislation attempts.

“We welcome the Bill,” says Chandaria,“as it will greatly rid us of all the mess in the city.

Supermarkets that are looking at the bigger picture are already using non-polythene bags.”

However, manufacturers see the proposed ban as an attempt by City Hall to abdicate its duty of collecting garbage because “the alternatives they are talking about will still be garbage”.

“They must devise cleaner ways of disposing polythene bags,” says Githinji Kinyanjui, the managing director of Cocorico Investment Ltd, a polythene manufacturing firm in Nairobi. And the best way to ensure cleaner disposal of waste, says Kinyanjui, is to ensure all homes separate their garbage.

Shortage of clean bags

“The biggest challenge is that polythene is being mixed with other dirty garbage. We actually face a shortage of clean polythene bags for recycling,” says Kinyanjui, adding that the demand for polythene is market-driven and it would be hard to entirely ban it.

“What many people don’t know is that most of the polythene bags come from outside the country through imported goods.

What will they do with polythene that wraps imports or goods manufactured in local industries?” he poses

A similar ban of plastics failed to take off in 2007 after lobbying by industry players.

The then Finance minister Amos Kimunya had proposed a 120 per cent excise duty on the bags, causing an uproar in both the PNU and ODM sides of the House.

At the time, estimates showed that at two million plastic bags were issued to customers by supermarkets and grocery shops in the city alone daily.

It was also indicated that 4,000 tonnes of thin plastic bags were produced in Kenya not just to carry shopping, but to also wrap factory–produced consumer goods.

County Speaker Alex Ole Magelo says the new Bill could become one of the greatest legislative hallmarks for the City assembly in its term as the proposal “will lead to a radical measure towards ensuring the capital city sets the standards of a modern African metropolis”.

“We are waiting for members to discuss and make amendments to it. The mood is positive,” says Magelo.

Additional reporting by The New York Times.