Mr Lucas Omwenga is a worried man. For five years, he has plied his trade as a plastic bag trader in Kisii town’s fruit and vegetable market, an occupation that is his young family’s source of income.
“My wife and two children depend on my plastic bag business for their daily bread,” said Mr Omwenga, as he navigated the narrow pathways between stalls where he daily serves hundreds of clients.
Life is about to take a different turn for Mr Omwenga, 27, and other “karatasi” traders, as the bags are commonly known in Kisii County.
DENT ON INCOME
This follows a government directive to ban the use of plastic bags from September.
With the ban set to take effect in five months, plastic bag users and sellers are staring at bleak economic prospects as the cheap and available product is edged out of the market.
A spot-check by the Nation in the county found most traders using plastic bags to pack goods.
Some traders expressed misgivings with the State’s alternative of disposable paper bags, saying they would be difficult to use.
“I have always used the bags to pack meat for my clients. It will be difficult to pack 10 to 20 kilos of meat in a disposable paper bag, said Mr Mark Samwel, a butcher in Kisii town.
Fish mongers are also up in arms against the ban, terming it misplaced and ill-intentioned.
“The only packaging material that prevents fish from decaying during short-term storage is plastic bags. We are disturbed by the ban, which will see us make huge losses due to spoilt fish,” said Mr Abdul-Malik Yusuf.
Mr Derick Otieno, another fish trader, said the ban is an economic sabotage for small traders.
“We normally purchase the bags at Sh30 a kilo compared to old newspapers that go for Sh60 a kilo. Banning the plastics will impoverish the youth who may be forced to turn to crime,” he said.
“It is notified to the public that the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources has with effect from six months from the date of this notice banned the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging,” said Prof Wakhungu in a gazette notice dated February 28.
The Kenya Association of Manufacturers says the ban will adversely affect the profit margins of more than 170 companies and result in the loss of at least 60,000 jobs.
According to KAM Chief Executive Phyllis Wakiaga, the problem is not plastic bags, but consumer behaviour.
She said the government, manufactures and distributors, the public and other stakeholders should make concerted efforts to find a solution to environmental problems associated with plastics.
“Waste management is an issue we must acknowledge as a country because we are collectively responsible for it. How we manage our waste at the individual level, at a household level, at the business level, is a concern for all of us as Kenyans.
“Many countries have faced challenges in disposing of the used plastic bags. Many are dumped in the garbage and water streams, though the waste does not break down,” Ms Wakiaga said.
They also clog water pipes, drainage and sewerage systems and can cause death if ingested by livestock.
Prof Geoffrey Wahungu, the National Environment Management Authority director-general, backed the move, saying the banning of plastic carriers will play a critical role in fostering a clean and healthy environment for all.
He said the best way to deal with the plastic bags issue is to ban them, adding that the country could no longer wait for the citizens to be convinced of the ban’s necessity.
“It takes a generation to change consumer behaviour. We do not have that time since there are alternatives, and this problem is getting out of hand. Let us ban plastic bags now as we explore viable alternatives,” he said
“Kenya is taking decisive action to remove an ugly stain on its outstanding natural beauty,” said Erik Solheim, Unep executive-director.
WAR ON PLASTIC
Kenya’s ban on the use, manufacture and import of all plastic bags comes three weeks after the UN declared a “war on plastic” through its Clean Seas initiative, which has secured commitments to address major plastic pollution from 10 governments.
“Long identified as a major cause of environmental damage and health problems, they kill birds, fish and other animals that mistake them for food, damage agricultural land, pollute tourist sites and provide breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carry malaria and dengue fever,” Mr Solheim said.
He praised the country’s move, calling it a significant step to protect its nature that would inspire other nations to follow suit.
Plastic bags are the number one challenge for urban waste disposal in Kenya, particularly in poor communities where access to disposal systems and health care is limited.
They contribute to the eight million tonnes of plastic that leak into the ocean every year.
Unep estimates that at current rates there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050, wreaking havoc on marine fisheries, wildlife and tourism.
Kenya becomes the 11th country to take action in support of the UN’s environmental campaign.
In Africa, Rwanda and Morocco have banned plastic bags and other countries are set to announce measures in coming days.
Kenya has 176 manufacturers of plastic paper, according to the manufacturers’ lobby KAM.
“The six-month period provided for the ban to take full effect is not adequate, as the companies cannot close down production and clear their stocks within that period,” KAM said in a statement, citing an impending major disruption in the sector.
KAM Sector Manager Samwel Matonda says the sector contributes Sh2 billion to the Exchequer in addition to other spin-off benefits.
The Consumer Federation of Kenya (Cofek) said the policy ban should come with affordable alternative options for shoppers.