Since the ban on plastic carrier bags came into effect in August 2017, we have witnessed tremendous positive changes, including a change in individual perception towards plastic materials. We have seen a rise in innovative items, most of which are meant to replace the banned ones that were essentially single-use.
The question is, are the newly introduced replacements sustainable and environmentally friendly?
One of the notable items that have flooded the market is the mesh bags that are used by ‘mama mboga’ and supermarkets to package vegetables, fruits, and other groceries.
Mesh bags are plastic and single-use. They easily tear on first use; hence, there is no chance that they are reusable. Often, mesh bags end up in dustbins and eventually in landfills, forests, or marine ecosystems.
Given their nature, mesh bags are hazardous to livestock and wildlife, including birds, when they ingest as they browse or when they get trapped. Birds may be unable to fly when the mesh ties their wings. Ingested plastics hinder proper digestion and may remain in an animal’s body for long and could be fatal. Many plastics take hundreds of years to degrade.
We have seen cases of sea turtles, whales, and sharks entangled in fishing nets. Mesh nets are no different. Once they find their way into water bodies, aquatic life is in jeopardy.
In addition to the mesh bags, the clear small handless carrier bags are back in full circulation, mainly used to package copped vegetables. They are used openly, hinting that the implementation of the plastic carrier bag ban policy and regulations are not currently in full force.
You might want to ask yourself: where do these small clear plastic bags come from? Are some companies producing them illegally? Are they being smuggled? Do people understand what was banned and what was not? What are those plastic bags exempted from the ban?
From the very beginning, the citizens did not get proper exposure and understanding of the particulars of the policy and the regulations. Of interest are those citizens in the rural areas and those involved in small-scale trading who easily get deceived into buying and using the banned items.
The citizens need to understand the tiny details of the ban, especially those that affect their socio-economic domains directly. For instance, the significance of banning plastic carrier bags, the fines and penalties involved should one be found producing, selling, or using the prohibited bags, and the exemptions. The Kenyan population deserves to know why some items are exempted while others are not; for knowledge purposes and to encourage compliance.
Continuous and active enforcement of the plastic ban regulations is lacking, giving leeway to many people to flout the law. If the policy was executed indiscriminately, we could not be in such a mess. Reactive implementation is not a solution; instead, it should be progressive.
Some people are still wondering; at what point did plastic carrier bags become bad, yet they have been in use for decades. This is because they have not been educated on the plastic contents of the bags and the dangers they cause to human, animal, and environmental health. It is also because the majority have no idea the length of time plastics take to degrade or that some may never degrade. Others don’t know that microplastics find their way into human bodies through diet; for example, when one consumes fish that had ingested plastics.
Thus, it is prudent to go back to the drawing board and interrogate the regulations. For a fact, they are outstanding regulations aimed at promoting sustainability. However, the manner in which they are being enforced is the problem basically because the momentum died almost immediately the ban came into force.
Alternatively, update the policy to include potentially harmful carrier bags that are single-use that emerged after the ban on plastic carrier bags.
By now, we have enough information concerning people’s reactions and behaviour towards plastic bags, failures, and successes that can be analysed to strengthen the regulations and forge for an integrated, seamless implementation approach.
The ban alone is not enough; we need to harmonize county and national laws on waste management, climate change, and conservation to make it a success.
The extended producer responsibility regulations 2021 should be a strong foundation in addressing plastic waste in general. The problem should be addressed from the source–adopting a circular economy in waste management to reduce plastic waste generated, promote innovation, create new opportunities and encourage individual consumer responsibility.
We need to reevaluate our market to establish the source of the banned bags. If they are locally produced, then address the problem immediately and if smuggled from neighbouring countries, then fix the border porosity.
Fundamentally, educating the citizens on plastic waste, existing regulations, and policies on plastic carrier bags and other single-use items will reduce the demand for plastics, negatively affecting the supply and ultimately making policy implementation smooth.
This article was originally published in The Standard Newspaper as
Caroline Kibii is an environmental scientist and a research consultant