Ask any Kenyan who has been to Rwanda to explain how Kenya will change when polythene bags are abolished, and you will get a description of Utopia.
With just over a week to the August 28 enforcement date of a polythene bags ban by the Environment ministry, the Sunday Nation spoke to three Kenyans who have visited Rwanda recently.
Some of the terms they used in describing Kigali include “impeccable”, “super-clean” and “different world”.
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Asked if Kenya can one day receive such praise, Environment Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu shrugged her shoulders and said: “It is up to Kenyans.”
“Now, I’m in court. So, clearly, there is a faction of Kenyans that does not want this to succeed.
“I can’t say too much; I’m in court, I’m being fought. If Kenyans want it, we can.
“We can even exceed that [Rwanda]. But it’s up to Kenyans,” she told Sunday Nation on Friday.
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The case she was referring to was filed in July by importers and traders, who want nullification of the ban that she introduced by a six-month notice in a Kenya Gazette signed on February 28.
Despite the case, Prof Wakhungu is optimistic that the ban will take effect, noting that in the first phase of the purge, only polythene bags that are bought for carrying products will be targeted.
Manufacturers, she said, will still be allowed to package goods in polythene bags as they fall under the primary packaging category.
“Primary packaging means when it’s packaged at the point of source,” she said.
The National Environment Management Authority (Nema), in a notice recently published on its website, has also announced that polythene bags that are used as dustbin linings will not be phased out, same with bags used to handle biomedical and hazardous waste.
“These bags must be clearly labelled (printed) the name of the industry manufacturing them and the end-user,” the authority says.
That implies that despite the ban, there will still be polythene containers, but Prof Wakhungu believes the ban will deal with a good chunk of the current problem.
“This is phase one; we’re just going after plastic carrier bags. Kenyans should be prepared to be carrying their own reusable bags,” she said.
In Rwanda, where there has been a ban on polythene packaging since 2008 and where there are regular mass cleaning events, most areas especially in its capital Kigali are spotlessly clean.
The Kenyans we spoke to were skeptical on whether Kenya can reach that level.
Communication consultant Bonface Nyangla has been living and working in Rwanda since March 2015.
He flashed back to the day he entered Rwanda at Gatuna border.
“As we approached Kigali, I realised I was in a different world: the roadsides were sparkling clean, no rubbish and even the water running in culverts was clean,” he recalled.
“We can achieve the same feat in Kenya as long as there is political goodwill from our head of State, the 47 governors and the general population,” Mr Nyangla added.
Ms Wairimu Kuria, an auditor, visits Rwanda regularly, the last visit having been late last year.
“From the moment you land at the airport, the air smells different,” she said.
“The streets are super clean and the road gardens are well-maintained.
“What surprised me is that people deliberately look for a legal place to pass through. No one steps on the grass.
“I went to the supermarket and they use khaki paper bags to pack. I found this inconvenient, especially if you are buying a lot of stuff. Did I like it there? Yes, to the point of relocating,” she said.
Asked if the same can work in Kenya, she said: “I don’t think so. It requires a total overhaul of the mindset of the population, right from the top.
“It is more than a need for a clean environment. It is a total intolerance to impunity.”
Sports journalist Isaac Swila visited Rwanda in 2015 and spent two weeks on an assignment.
“I can tell you Kigali looks like a small heaven,” he recalled.
“When I landed at the airport, at the passenger clearance, the first thing they inquire is whether one has a plastic bag in their luggage.
“If you have any, woe unto you! ‘You have to leave it there. It’s that simple. It’s only when one has left the airport and begins to enjoy the ride around the city, surrounded by the rolling hills, than one appreciates the strictness of the ban,”‘ Mr Swila added.
Whether Kenya will one day be worthy of such praise remains to be seen, because efforts to ban polythene bags have failed thrice before — in 2005, 2007 and 2011.
Prof Geoffrey Wahungu, Nema’s director-general, recently said he was optimistic that this time the efforts will come to fruition.
“From 2008 to 2014, we were talking about how to manage and control plastic waste. But now, since the ban is already gazetted, it’s going to be illegal to import and manufacture plastic bags,” he said during a courtesy call to Nation offices in May.
He added: “Nema is not alone. We have about four very important government agencies.
“The first one, which has already come on board and given notice, is Kenya Bureau of Standards.”
Among the people who hope that Kenyans will be weaned off polythene packaging are manufacturers of paper-based products and other biodegradable packaging.
Some manufacturers of the eco-friendly packaging will be holding an exhibition at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre in Nairobi on Thursday and Friday to showcase alternative ways of carrying items.
Among the participants will be Sai Green, a company that produces packages that look like the common polythene bags but which are made from materials that rot — like starch and vegetable oil.
“Conventional plastic bags are made from fossil-based oil, which is not renewable; therefore by using EG bags we can reduce fossil-based oil consumption,” Sai Green says in one of its promotional materials.
Prof Wakhungu, in a May interview with Nation, had said that some of the items that will henceforth be used to make packaging material include sisal, bamboo, water hyacinth and other paper products.
“Actually, these materials exist. We have homegrown industries that, if given the opportunity, will generate more jobs than these specialised hegemony jobs of the petrochemical industries — because that is what they are,” she said.
Other firms interested in making alternative packaging, which have expressed interest in Thursday’s exhibition, include Thika Cloth Mills and E-Power Ecosystem.
But not all are moved. An employee at Premier Bag and Cordage, a Nairobi-based firm that produces sisal bags, said his firm is not inspired to make products to fill the void.
“A bag will cost a minimum of Sh150. I don’t think many people will want to buy them,” Sushand Sahao, a worker at the firm, said.
As the clock ticks to August 28, a number of supermarkets have started preparing their customers for the eventuality of polythene-free packaging by introducing cloth bags.
A number of them are already selling cloth bags rather than issue the conventional polythene bags.
Nema has also asked all parties involved in importing or manufacturing of polythene used for packaging goods to apply for fresh licences.