In Dustin Hoffman’s breakout 1967 film, The Graduate, a young man just out of college is not sure of what he is supposed to do next. At the party thrown by his parents, one of his father’s friends steers him away from the crowd:
“Ben, I just want to say one word to you.”
“Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”
Investment in the plastic industry surged during the decades following the movie’s release. But the film also fast-tracked the rise of our collective environmental consciousness. “There’s a great future in plastics” became a meme for the toxicity of modern industrial society. A year after the movie came out, a river in the industrial heartland of Ohio caught fire and burned for seventeen days. Increasingly visible halos of dull brown smog were enveloping large cities.
For many of us who were coming of age at the time, this scene was permanently burnt into our brains. I took up residence in a plastic-free Kenya. When I returned to the US two years later, I found the coconuts in our supermarket wrapped in cling wrap.
If plastics were the future, this did not augur well for the health of the planet.
Conquering the marketplace
It had taken the industry just over a century following the invention of Parkesine in 1862, which was actually made out of cellulose, to reach this point. Improvements came quickly, driven by the development of oil-based polymers generated by the cracking process in petroleum refineries. For the first time, humans were using materials containing no molecules found in nature.
This led to a procession of new products, the food industry often playing the role of early adopter. Butchers and bakers started using cello-tape after its invention in 1930. Saran wrap followed a few years later. Tupperware, the first airtight plastic food containers, showed up twelve years after that, and was one of the first brands to be marketed directly through housewives. The 1960s saw baggies and zip-locks become part of the plastic lunch box syndrome.
These products, long valued for their convenience more than for their contribution to reducing food waste, were recognized as part of a yet greater problem by the time large garbage bags appeared in 1970 to deal with the proliferation of disposable wraps, containers, bottles, and other forms of food packaging. The unrelenting march of synthetic polymers now dwarfs any environmental benefits, like the fuel consumption savings attributable to lighter cars and reduced food waste.
Another problem emerged in tandem with these developments: as the scale and variety of the plastic packaging increased, the quality and integrity of the food it enclosed decreased. Even the acacia and other tree resins originally chewed by pastoralists and other indigenous people, which confer significant cardio-vascular benefits, have been replaced by synthetics made of butyl rubber, paraffin, petroleum wax, polyethylene, polyisobutylene, and polyvinyl acetate.
Not what it’s cracked up to be?
Plastic is a primary component of the carbon economy. Although in theory “renewable”, some 95 per cent of the plastics manufactured are used once, and one-third of this volume by-passes garbage collection and directly enters the environment; 8 million tonnes that leak into the ocean each year. The negative value of the waste exceeds the plastic industry’s profits.
Plastics enter our ecosystems as hard-to-break down refuse that deteriorates over time into tiny particles of micro-plastics. Old plastic does not die, it just fades from view, then ends up in our water supply, ecosystems, and bodies, which host between 40 million and 70 million particles of polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene per person according to recent surveys. Microplastic particles raining down from the sky are accumulating in the most remote corners of the earth—and in our blood and internal organs. This compromises our bodies’ inflammatory responses, oxidative stress, nutrient absorption, gut microbiome, endocrine function, and reproduction.
Despite the growth and scope of the recycling industry, only 14 per cent of plastic is recycled, and only 2 per cent of that actually gets reused. Incineration, which now consumes 25 per cent of plastic refuse generated, only kicks the can down the road, creating the same kind of toxic fumes and carcinogens funnelled into the atmosphere by the smokestacks of industries and coal plants.
Microplastic particles raining down from the sky are accumulating in the most remote corners of the earth—and in our blood and internal organs.
Expensive pink Himalayan Salt is showing up on our supermarket shelves because plastic is now found in sea salt. There is no escape, only mitigation measures such as those proposed in the MacArthur Foundation study, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics. The report outlines a comprehensive strategy predicated on thinking about plastics as a global material flow, aligned with the principles of the circular economy. Briefly stated, it advocates the creation ““of an effective after-use plastics economy by improving the economics and uptake of recycling, reuse and controlled biodegradation for targeted applications”.
As is usually the case in such top-down master plans, the strategy is considerably more complicated than it sounds, and it involves many moving parts.
The reformed plastics economy will require a combination of new technologies, government policy, reduced exposure to volatility of fossil “feedstock”, and investment in developing countries’ after-use infrastructure. Implementation is predicated on exploiting negative public perceptions to engage policymakers and to coordinate and drive communication with the objective of establishing a global plastics protocol—the actual key to the solution lies in the development of large-scale “moonshot” innovations.
This approach provides an entry point into the Kenya case study.
Kenya’s plastics industry
Use of plastic in Kenya’s food sector was rare in the decades after independence. When I first came to Kenya in 1974, food was purchased fresh in the market or small shops, where we bought Omo in paper boxes and items like sugar wrapped up in paper. We drank soft drinks out of glass bottles, carried baskets, and used reusable vessels for liquids like kerosene and cooking oil.
The Tetra Pack milk carton was the most common form of commercial packaging. Everyone held onto heavy plastic bags for their repeated use value. For those of us inoculated with the “future is plastic” meme, it seemed that with a modicum of awareness and environmental education, Kenya could avoid the plastic waste debacle.
It was not to be. The unsightly presence of non-degradable refuse increased the general accumulation of trash across the landscape, while economic change was altering the relative pristine appearance of the Kenyan landscape. The plains and savannah of eastern Nairobi, where one used to see wildebeest, ostrich, and giraffe just beyond the outskirts of town, gave way to new industries and population growth. The detritus accompanying the shift showed up in the corners and gutters of towns, on coastal beaches, and as drifting dunes of trash lining the country’s highways.
I recall the sight of what appeared to be a post-rainy season bloom of multi-coloured flowers covering an open plain on the approach to Nairobi after passing Athi River. Upon closer view, it turned out to be a carpet of plastic bags bobbing in the wind.
Production of plastics and related products is now a US$400 million dollar industry in Kenya. Some fifty companies are involved in plastic manufacturing, and many other players are profiting from the importation and distribution of plastic products. Much of this goes into the packaging of food and various containers and wraps for keeping it fresh. Food-related packaging accounts for 27 per cent of global plastic output, and the shift to plastic packaging accelerated at a time when the country was unprepared for the challenges of waste management in general.
The public sector’s limited capacity to deal with the waste mirrored the population’s apathy. Roadside kiosks housed in plastic Coca-Cola bottles reflected Kenyans’ passive acceptance of commercial uglification. But their appearance also coincided with a turning point in perceptions of Kenya’s environmental future.
To stem the accumulation of plastic waste, Kenya’s National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) banned the use of plastic carrier bags in 2017. Industrial advocates had fought the proposed ban for ten years, claiming it would eliminate 60,000 jobs. In the end, Environment Minister Judi Wakhungu prevailed. The new law came with heavy fines ranging from US$40,000 for commercial violators to US$500 for individual users.
The shift to plastic packaging accelerated at a time when the country was unprepared for the challenges of waste management in general.
After a spate of early arrests, enforcement settled into a far-reaching pattern of voluntary compliance. The action immediately generated widespread publicity, leapfrogging Kenya to the front of the global environmental movement. Shortly after the ban went into effect, I was preparing to disembark from a Nairobi bound international flight when tourists castigated me for carrying a duty-free shopping bag. “Kenya is a plastic-free country,” the first-time arrivals informed me.
The ban did represent a significant first step towards alleviating the larger problem, and the government boarded the circular economy bandwagon when the Ministry of Environment facilitated the formation of the Kenya Plastics Pact (KPP) in 2021. The initiative brings together local governments, researchers, civil society and non-governmental organizations, businesses and the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, informal waste management actors, and other stakeholders in the plastics value chain.
The goal is to develop a circular economy for plastics by 2030 in Kenya, but it is difficult to see signs of substantive progress. Although economic liberalization contributed to the plasticization of the countryside, there is still no market-based solution in sight. In the meantime, the reformed plastics economy envisioned in the MacArthur-WEF report has yet to halt the expanding polymer-sphere enveloping the planet.
Like global warming, plastics are an inconvenient by-product of industrial capitalism. Big Plastic exploits recycling and initiatives like the new plastics economy to camouflage the real source of the problem, and to transfer responsibility for fixing it to consumers and governments.
The government boarded the circular economy bandwagon when the Ministry of Environment facilitated the formation of the Kenya Plastics Pact (KPP) in 2021.
The technological moonshot solution reflects the same kind of big project mentality that has dominated development economics for decades. But polymer-eating bacteria are not going to rescue the global commons, at least not in the foreseeable future. When exported to the developing world, this approach suffers from the usual combination of mismanagement, poor coordination, inequitable allocation of scarce resources, and the chimerical influence of external factors.
Externally funded after-use infrastructure for plastics is not going to sort out the plastics problem in the Global South. In reality, the major battles in this war will be fought upstream. Downstream countries like Kenya can, however, exploit their comparative advantage in regard to their capacity for socioeconomic and cultural plasticity.
From plastic to plasticity
The Greek word plastikos means to mould. Plasticity, in contrast, refers to the quality of being easily shaped or moulded. This first definition pertains to the world of material science and chemistry. The second definition of plasticity, rooted in biology and evolutionary analysis, highlights the ability of an organism or a species to use new food sources and to adapt itself to new environmental influences. This extends to our body’s ability to repair itself and the brain’s capacity to rewire itself after injury and trauma. Biomedical progress in this domain has led to validation of other plasticity-enhancing practices, like the role of unstructured play for children, and meditation for adults.
This kind of developmental plasticity, and not recirculating plastic, is arguably the key to uncracking the future. Kenya already enjoys several advantages in regard to this objective. It retains a significant level of its pre-plastic circular economy, high-plastic household consumption is mainly limited to urban areas, and most Kenyans already have a high level of awareness on environmental issues as demonstrated by voluntary compliance with the plastic bag embargo.
Naturally, the state will have to play an interstitial role, including participating in national and global-scale initiatives, and by using its regulatory levers to encourage environmentally friendly packaging standards pioneered elsewhere. In any event, the growing mass of multiple-use plastic would still have to be collected and processed.
The problem here is that even after far-reaching constitutional reforms, the state and the governing elite tend to be plastic when it comes to dealing with entrenched interests. The government was, for example, negotiating terms for the importation of 500 tonnes of plastic waste from abroad at the same time as it was forming the KPP. Kenyan society has proven to be quite elastic in comparison.
Processed food packaging and bottled water are the primary sources of plastic waste in Kenya. Urban consumers can help by following the lead of rural Kenyans, by seeking out fresh produce in local markets, and by avoiding those seductively packaged supermarket non-essentials. The rise of small dairies offering milk in glass bottles is a positive trend we all can support.
The government was, for example, negotiating terms for the importation of 500 tonnes of plastic waste from abroad at the same time as it was forming the KPP.
When the need for mobile phone credit arose, thousands of kiosks and shops offering scratch cards appeared overnight. It follows that a similar arrangement involving micro water vendors selling it at a lower price to customers with their own containers could work as well.
When it comes to fostering creative problem-solving across Kenya’s system scales, the process often begins on the lower rungs. The Lamu boatbuilders who captured the world’s imagination by sailing a boat made out of plastic bottles and flip-flops to Zanzibar is a case in point. The counties could build on this awareness-raising event by establishing waste plastic-free zones, and low-plastic areas like the Lamu archipelago and the northern rangelands would be good places to start. Rural producers can make their own Parkesine.
A popular movement based on small-scale solutions would build upon Kenya’s international reputation for adaptive environmental management. Over time, it would exert a multiplier effect across tourism, health, agriculture, and other sectors, outpacing the value of top-down industrial interventions.