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According to the Earth Policy Institute, the world uses an estimated two million plastic bags every minute; they are used for about 12 minutes before being tossed away. Often, these bags wind up in landfills where they will take up to one 100 years to break down or, worse, end up as environmental pollutants – littering streets, hanging from to trees, clogging drains, polluting water bodies and choking the earth. This characterizes Kenya’s unpleasant relationship with plastic bags, particularly before the country finally banned the manufacture and use of single-use plastic bags in 2017.

The Kenyan government had since 2005 made several attempts to ban plastic bags. However, the efforts failed each and every time mainly due to the efforts of plastic manufacturers who consistently resisted being run out of business, both independently and through the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), a powerful industry lobby group comprising the largest local manufacturers.

For years, the government has collaborated with environmental agencies such as the United Nation Environmental Programme (UNEP) to combat the challenges associated with plastic waste, in particular the extensive environmental damage plastic bags have wrought on Nairobi, once celebrated as the “Green City in the Sun”.

Kenya’s battle with plastic bags goes back to the early 2000s when international news outlets exposed the hazards of plastic following reports of the pervasive practice of defecating in plastic bags in Nairobi’s informal settlements, a practice infamously dubbed “flying toilets” or “scud missiles”. Due to pressure by environmental activists, the government worked with UNEP to publish a report that recommended a ban on thin plastic bags and the imposition of a levy on thicker bags.

The appointment of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Prof. Wangari Maathai as Assistant Minister for Environment in 2003 was a highlight in Kenya’s journey towards banning plastic bags as it underscored the commitment of then President Mwai Kibaki and his government to protect the environment. Preceding her appointment and after she left the government, Prof. Maathai was a fierce and crucial public voice against plastic waste.

In 2005, the government made its first attempt at banning plastic bags by prohibiting the manufacture and sale of those with a thickness of under 30 microns. The administration, led by President Kibaki, also developed a 10-point plan to reduce plastic pollution, with the promise of funding alternative, environmentally friendly carrier bags.

Despite the government’s apparent determination to ban plastic bags, the sluggish implementation of the ban was raising concerns. The structural power of businesses shone through in narratives challenging the ban. Plastic bag producers and traders protested the impending ban, arguing that it would trigger extensive job losses associated with the manufacture, supply and distribution of plastic bags.

Interestingly, at some point, Kenya’s environmental body, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) sided with the manufacturers, declaring that the implementation of the ban would result in job losses for more than 4,000 Kenyans.

A second attempt was made in 2007, with the government outlawing the manufacture of plastic bags of less than 30 microns and imposing a 120 per cent excise duty (green tax) on permitted plastic bags. The move was poorly received by traders who protested and threatened to pass on the extra manufacturing costs of the thicker plastic bags to consumers. In 2011, NEMA announced a more elaborate plastic bag ban, outlawing the manufacture of plastic bags below a thickness of 60 microns, once again eliciting protests among traders.

The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) sided with the manufacturers, declaring that the implementation of the ban would result in job losses for more than 4,000 Kenyans.

While the instrumental power of these businesses was ineffective in blocking anti-plastic bag legislation, their structural power and the continued advocacy of industry lobby groups influenced the decision to impose a restricted implementation of the ban.

However, between 2010 and 2014, Kenya’s annual plastic production expanded by a third, reaching 400,000 tonnes, further fuelling pressure by local activist groups, global environmental agencies such as UNEP, the press and the public for a ban on plastic bags through the popular social media hashtags #BanPlasticsKE and #IsupportBanPlasticsKE. Importantly, the movement gained the support of the then Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, Judy Wakhungu, who tweeted in support of banning plastic bags.

As Kenya continued to urbanise, so did its plastic waste grow. Data shows that Kenya produces around 4.5 million tonnes of solid waste each year and the amount is expected to double in the next decade.

Before the introduction of the ban on plastic bags, grocery stores and other retail outlets handed out over 100 million bags each year, despite Kenya’s lack of an adequate waste disposal infrastructure to keep the bags out of the environment.

A government-supported study further highlighted the far-reaching consequences of plastic bags, revealing that more than half of all cattle reared near cities and towns had plastic in their stomachs while in Nairobi some slaughterhouses were removing up to 30 plastic bags from slaughtered cows.

In 2016, authorities at Lake Nakuru National Park collected 24 tonnes of plastic from the lake and its rangelands, the grazing fields for the park’s herbivores.

The same year, authorities acknowledged that solid waste disposal posed a major challenge for Nairobi, which produces more than 2,600 tonnes of waste daily. The city has more than 160 private-sector waste operators, each acting independently amid the government’s poor regulation and wanting enforcement of environmental laws.

In 2016, authorities at Lake Nakuru National Park collected 24 tonnes of plastic from the lake and its rangelands, the grazing fields for the park’s herbivores.

In 2017, the excessive pressure mounted on the government finally overcame the sustained resistance of plastic bag manufacturers. The ban on plastic bags came into effect on 28 August 2017, threatening serious consequences including up to four years’ imprisonment or fines of US$40,000 for anyone producing, selling or even carrying a plastic bag.

However, the plastics industry objected the imminent ban, using its instrumental power to influence policy decisions through KAM, which opposed the ban by arguing that if implemented, it would cost 60,000 jobs, force 176 manufacturers to shut down, and deny the country the opportunity to earn revenue through exports of plastic bags.

Manufacturing and agribusiness companies outside the plastics sector also expressed worry over the effects of the ban to their business given that plastic materials provided them with cheap packaging for their products.

Retailers were also hesitant to welcome the plastic bag ban, fearing incurring additional costs given that environmentally-friendly bags such as cloth and paper bags are costlier than plastic bags.

These businesses were particularly critical of UNEP’s influence in the ban on plastic bags, arguing that the involvement of the agency forced the largely pro-business Kenyan government to impose the ban, hurting local businesses in the process.

Before implementing the ban, the government gave plastic manufacturers a six-month window within which to comply but KAM officials argued that government policy was too stringent and denied companies — which had for decades invested in the production of plastic and employed thousands of Kenyans — an opportunity to voice their concerns. As KAM actively negotiated with the government to minimise the severity of the ban and create more allowances for manufacturers, Hi-Plast, a local plastic bag manufacturer, filed a lawsuit against the government demanding compensation.

Traders also joined in the manufacturers’ protest and filed a petition at the High Court to block the implementation of the ban. Like the manufacturers, the traders decried lack of adequate stakeholder consultation, warning that the ban would be detrimental to the economy.

However, the High Court ruled against both the manufacturers and the traders, arguing that the rights of over 40 million Kenyans to a clean environment could not be tilted in favour of the commercial interests of a section of plastic bags dealers.

In his ruling of 25 August 2018, Environment and Land Court Judge Bernard Mweresa stated, “Granting the orders sought will severely undermine the protection of the environment while serving commercial interests.”

As the ban on plastic bags came into force, government representatives explained that, rather than consumers, plastic bag manufacturers and retailers would be the initial targets of the new law. In the wake of the ban, the media was awash with reports of countrywide crackdowns and arrests of those still manufacturing or selling plastic bags. Nairobi’s Burma Market, one of the city’s largest markets, was shut down because of widespread non-compliance with the ban.

Nearly five years later, Kenya’s plastic bag ban has proven to be largely successful, but the smuggling of plastic bags from neighbouring countries has emerged as a notable challenge.

The ban on plastic carrier bags also paved the way for the prohibition of single-use plastics in protected areas including national parks, forests and beaches in June 2020.

“Granting the orders sought will severely undermine the protection of the environment while serving commercial interests.”

Despite losing most of their plastic manufacturing business, manufacturers such as the Ramco Group of Companies and Bobmil Industries obtained special clearance to manufacture a limited number of plastic bags for the local food processing industry, which are permitted under the plastic bag ban.

While some plastic bag manufacturers were able to continue with their operations, many were forced to lay off thousands of workers. Manufacturers claimed that they had to let go between 62 per cent and 90 per cent of their workforce, while KAM argued that the ban had a much more significant effect on job losses across the manufacturing, retail and agro-processing sectors.

However, businesses have accepted the turning tides. Although some businesses continue to see the ban as unfair or argue that it functions as a block to industrialisation, many recognise that plastics cannot be a long-term investment amid the growing climate change concerns.

Kenya has also progressed by adopting plastic bag alternatives on a large scale. Following the ban on plastic bags, and despite the government’s failure to fulfil its promise of providing incentives for businesses investing in alternatives to plastic bags, several local companies saw an opportunity and began producing bags out of more sustainable materials. Some organisations are taking their sustainability efforts further. They include companies like Energy Solutions, which plans to shape a circular economy in the plastics industry by producing synthetic oil from plastic waste.

While Rwanda was the first country in East Africa to ban plastic bags in 2008, adopting a law banning all single-use plastics in 2019, there is no doubt that Kenya’s move to implement the ban on plastic bags has inspired similar efforts in the other East African countries.