Kenya marks five years since single use plastic bag ban

by Wanja Mungai

A ban on single-use plastic carrier bags has been in place in Kenya for slightly over five years now. It has led to a cleaner environment, as plastic bags were clogging drains, filling dumpsites, and endangering the lives of livestock that consumed them. However, one Kenyan man who played an active role in getting plastics banned in the East African nation says more still needs to be done to protect the environment.

A picture of plastic bags. /Getty Images

James Wakibia is considered by some a hero in Kenya. The photojournalist became a leading environmental activist when he campaigned for a total ban on single-use plastic carrier bags. By 2015, he was vocal about the problem of plastic waste. He was unhappy that the only dumpsite in his hometown of Nakuru City was not only an eyesore but was also destroying the environment.

“Essentially garbage is supposed to be inside the dumping site or landfill at that time the garbage was leaving the site to the road I felt that I needed to do it myself because at times we say somebody should do something, but I felt I should be that somebody to do something to highlight the issue. Call for the management of plastic waste and hope that the government would act and do something,” James Wakibia, Plastic Waste Campaigner says.

He approached county authorities, but they did not act. He got more active with his camera, taking photos of litter, particularly plastic bags, and posting them on digital media platforms.

He adds that he made hashtags on Twitter and Facebook. He used that maximumly and at times even wrote published articles in the mainstream media as well as being invited for talk shows on radio stations, calling for a ban on plastic bags.

“It is something that had trended for a few days before the Cabinet Secretary for Environment. You know Judy Wakhungu tweeted back with our hashtag and said she supported the ban on plastic bags in Kenya,” Wakibia submits.

In August 2017, Kenya made headlines when it banned single-use plastic carrier bags. The new law was seen by many globally, as the strictest ban due to the harsh penalties it imposed on violators.

“I was excited, says Wakibia. “I felt you know, this is it. After all those years five years of running a campaign, we are here. The government has listened, and the ban on plastic bags has kicked off. I was super excited.”

There has been a transformation in the public spaces, according to the photojournalist, including the once-littered roads.

Governments, however, need to invest a lot of resources in modernizing solid waste management. And if the waste management is fixed, Wakibia says the issue of plastic pollution will have been dealt with.

But some people still use single-use plastic bags secretly due to their affordability and convenience. They are sneaked into the country and sold on the black market. Experts warn the bags contribute to climate change because large amounts of fossil fuels are used in their production.  Plastic bags are also not biodegradable.

Anja Beretta, Director of the Energy Security and Climate Change Program
in Sub-Saharan Africa, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung says, “It’s actually estimated that around 9% of the global oil goes into plastic production, and it’s estimated that that will increase to up to 20% in 2050.

This means that plastic bags are the largest carbon sink in the seas. Oceans have the capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere but with plastic waste, the seas are choked and their ability to now absorb the carbon emissions is hampered. This creates greenhouse gas emissions.

Wakibia’s fight against plastics is still not over. He is now focused on getting the government to ban plastic bottles. With his camera and a huge social media following, he is optimistic that he can once again win the battle.