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The COVID-19 pandemic increased the demand for home deliveries in Kenya, a big chunk of which are made using plastic packaging materials, including oxoplastics and bioplastics, whose disposal puts more pressure on the environment.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), oxoplastics — which in the past were considered a great discovery — have brought with them several environmental challenges including disposal due to their non-degradable nature.

Oxoplastics are made from petroleum polymers and are used in a range of products in agriculture, in packaging as well as in refuse and decomposing sacks. They contain special additives that cause them to biodegrade.

Biodegradation is considered an effective option for the eco-friendly disposal of plastic waste because it is environment-friendly. During biodegradation, the waste should take the shortest time to decompose to prevent it from accumulating in the environment.

Bioplastics, on the other hand, are derived from plant and/or microorganisms. In general, bioplastics are produced from natural polymers occurring in micro-organisms, plants, and animals. With the help of a catalyst, these polymers are broken down into polylactic acid, a substance that can be used to make water bottles, various food-grade containers as well as films.

Bioplastics are therefore degradable and reusable. Although they release carbon dioxide when decomposing, this is considered zero-sum carbon dioxide emission. They support the reduction of greenhouse gases and consume 65 per cent less energy than that consumed in the production of petrochemical plastics.

Kenya turned to bioplastics following the ban on single-use plastics. However, according to the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, the complex nature of bioplastics creates difficulties during the collection and recycling processes and in 2019, the manufacturers’ association warned that if Kenyans did not change their waste disposal habits, more bioplastics would end up in landfills and incinerators, and pose greater risk to marine life.

This prompted Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority to slap a ban on bioplastics. However, the ban was overturned by the courts which argued that there were no set standards for enforcement and that many investors had already invested heavily in bioplastics.

Environmentalists have stressed that Kenya’s priorities ought to be on the behavioural change of its citizens —from primary school children to adults — regarding re-use and disposal of plastics.

Another alternative to plastics is the use of plant polymers such as sisal, palm leaves, papyrus and baobab. In Kenya, carrier bags made from plant materials have regained prominence in the last couple of years to fill the void left by the ban on single-use plastic bags.

Today it is common to see people carrying these bags in supermarkets and grocery stores. Although they cost more than plastic bags, the cost can help change the culture of use-and-dump and promote re-use habits.

Environmentalists have stressed that Kenya’s priorities ought to be on the behavioural change of its citizens.

There are also the biodegradable cotton fabric bags, commonly referred to as Kitenge bags, that have also gained traction among the urban and peri-urban populations.

But despite all these alternatives, environmentalists are still grappling with one key question: What exactly does it take to make the use of alternatives to plastics successful in Kenya?

Following the ban on single-use plastics, littering, clogged drainages and chocking water bodies have reduced significantly across the country. However, challenges still abound, including poor enforcement and lack of affordable alternatives to single-use plastics.

According to UNEP, the ban on single-use plastic bags has resulted in cases of smuggling of the product through Kenya’s porous borders. It has also seen the emergence of the plastic bag black market and the use of thicker plastic bags that are not covered under the ban.

More needs to be done to enforce the ban. Plastic bag vigilantes must be constantly on the lookout, from the villages to the airports, to tip off government authorities about suspected sale or use of single-use plastics across country. Regional support is also necessary to make the ban effective, especially within the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the East Africa Community.

Moreover, both the central and county governments must increase investments in solid waste management and in generally keeping the environment clean.

Reducing or zero-rating taxation on all imports meant to provide affordable and healthy alternatives to single-use plastics for traders would also go a long way to reducing the plastics menace. Boosting the country’s green economy will help mop up the thousands of workers who lost their sources of livelihood due to the ban on single-use plastic bags. According to manufacturers, Kenya lost close to 60,000 jobs following the ban. However, a green economy that makes use of bioplastics has the potential of doubling the number of jobs while protecting the environment. Promoting the use of forest products to produce alternatives to single-use plastics will also create more employment opportunities in the growing, harvesting, and transport of raw materials.

Research indicates that plastic bags outperform paper bags with regards to their manufacture, re-use and solid waste generation.

But, there are many competing interests in forest products that make them expensive alternatives to single-use plastics. Research indicates that plastic bags outperform paper bags with regards to their manufacture, re-use and solid waste generation. The paper bag value chain consumes six to 10 times more energy than plastic bags.

Paper bags are also heavier, less durable, and more expensive to handle as solid waste. They are more expensive to transport, and need more water to manufacture and recycle, which can hurt the environment even further through polluting the ecosystem and fuelling deforestation.

Despite this, it is clear that Kenya’s ban on single-use plastics has greatly improved the environment by making it cleaner and safer. The ban has also reduced the cost of drainage maintenance and waste management in Kenya’s major towns and markets and reduced the risks of diseases and deaths linked, either directly or indirectly, to single-use plastics bags.

Kenya might not have succeeded in completely eradicating single-use plastics but the efforts made thus far have been worthwhile, and the list of more affordable and environmentally friendly alternatives continues to grow.