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The Battle of Plastics: The Status Quo, Challenges, and Future for Plastic Waste Treatment in Kenya

“In terms of plastics, human beings are very poor users and managers,” Kiesler, chairman of the World Environment Council (WHO’s decision-making institution), said in a speech on World Environment Day.

Plastics were first introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century. Due to their lightweight, waterproofness, durability, mature production technology, and low cost, plastics have been rapidly and widely promoted in manufacture industries and people’s daily lives. In 1950, the world annual output for plastics was only 2 million tons, and in 2017 it reached 384 million tons, an increase of nearly 200 times. One of the most commonly used plastics, PET, is often made into beverage bottles, edible oil bottles. Another type of plastics, PE, is often made into bags, trash cans. PVC, although not as commonly utilized as the previous two types, is often made into pipes, seasoning tanks.

The “Strictest” Plastic Prohibition Order in History

In August 2017, the “plastic ban” issued by the Kenyan government came into effect, prohibiting the manufacture and use of all retail plastic bags. Without the direct approval of the National Environmental Agency (NEMA), all manufacturers and users of retail plastic bags will be fined between 20,000 and 40,000 US dollars.

In countries with a per capita monthly income of only $76 (5), this penalty is quite high. After the initiation of this policy, outcomes are quite favorable: today, retail plastic bags are almost “extinct” in Kenya.

Before and after the plastics ban in Kenya

Most local residents accede this policy. Among the several workers and consumers that interviewed in various shopping center in the Nairobi, though some oppositions were heard due to some difficulties in the early stage of policy implementation. However, after two years of adaptation, the citizens have begun to recognize the bright side of this policy.

The author conducts random interviews in the supermarket. Source: Yu Tianheng

“Before, when people used up these plastic bags, they threw them everywhere. Plastic bags of various colors covered the entire ground, even hanging on tree branches sometimes.” A supermarket worker said, “Currently, the environment around is really getting better. I am very grateful for this policy.”

Plastic Recycling Industry is on the Rise

Some innovative Kenyan entrepreneurs have also paid attention to the plastic recycling industry. These companies focus on recycling PET, PV and PP plastic products. Compared with retail plastic bags, these plastic products are thicker, more resistant to exterior damages. Therefore, they have higher recycling values.

Taka Taka Solution is an integrated garbage collection company that employs formal employees to collect all kinds of waste in the production and living areas and transport them to the waste sorting field for further sortation.

“In our sorting site, waste is divided into recyclables, organic waste and other waste. Because PET products account for the largest proportion of the total recyclables, we will separate these products first and then sell out at 20 Kenyan shillings per kilogram (about💲0.02).” The CEO of Taka Taka Solution explained, “Our waste disposal mode successfully avoids secondary pollution caused by garbage entering the dumping plant, thus increasing its reuse value.”

Plastic waste can also be processed into new products along with other waste products. EcoPost is an innovative recycling company that combines waste plastics and wood chips into WPC (Wood-Plastic Composite) materials for building up fences, billboard stands, and outdoor furniture. Laban, head of EcoPost, said, “Although our scale is not very large now, we believe that through our efforts, we can further improve the plastic recycling rate in Kenya through the information sales platform.”

“Garbage Bank” of the “Garbage City” residents

Dandora Dumpsite is Kenya’s largest urban dumping site, which is extremely polluted due to poor management and overfilling for many years.

Talking about Dandora, the residents of Nairobi always associate it with the words “dirty, chaotic, poor”. In order to change the living environment and the stereotypes of the outside world, some young local residents have established the garbage collection project— Taka Bank (“junk bank”).

The Taka Bank opens at 8:00 a.m. every weekday, nearby residents will then send the garbage to the corresponding points. When the customers of the ban attained enough points, they can exchange the points for daily necessities such as milk and sugar. “We have always encouraged people to bring plastic waste to us instead of throwing it everywhere, and we want to tell them plastic waste is actually ‘valuable’,” one of the staffs said.

Taka Bank has already attracted 153 “depositors” and has established four “branches” in other parts of Nairobi, although it has just been in operation for less than a year. In the communities covered by Taka Bank, residents have beginning to have an awareness of sorting and recycling garbage.

The person in charge, Ken, said: “People always say that we are living in a community full of rubbish, and we are people who are born in the dumpsite and have no environmental awareness. But I would like to tell these people that this is not our authentic lives.”

It can be seen that Kenyan governments, businesses, and residents are working hard to deal with plastic waste. However, Kenya’s road to solve plastic pollution still faces enormous challenges.

Policy Loopholes

In August 2017, the Kenyan government officially implemented the ban on plastics. Since then, Kenyan supermarkets have begun to use the new “textile-like bags.”

“This kind of ‘textile’ bag is actually not made of textile, but ‘Non-Woven Polypropylene’.” The CEO of Taka Taka Solution said, “The material is essentially plastic. And compared to the previous plastic retail bags, the new alternative is even more difficult to degrade.”

But ordinary citizens do not seem to understand the real situation. “I once asked the salesperson when I bought the bag at the retail supermarket. What did the bag do? The salesperson told me that it was a cotton-spun bag, and it was harmless to the environment.” KAM (Kenya Association The head of the PET division of the Manufacturers, Kenya Manufacturers Association said.

Manufacturers Suffer Heavy Losses

For plastic bag manufacturers and their workers, the ban on plastics has undoubtedly given them a heavy blow.

“It’s really terrible. It’s hard to imagine how the plastic bag factory faced it. I’ve been to a family business in Nairobi and they’re actually selling their machines.” KAM’s PET department head revealed, “No one in Kenya has ever done any type of social research, and the government has never measured the economic impact that the ban would lead to. There are almost 200 workers in each medium-sized factory. Letting so many people suddenly become unemployed in a country where the unemployment rate (40%) is so high, do you know how big the economic blow to Kenya is?”

After the ban, the plastic bag production plant in Kenya was basically closed, and the technical equipment and practitioners flowed to nearby Tanzania and Uganda, two countries that still allow the production of plastic bags. Therefore, many plastic bags are currently illegally returned to Kenya at the border. “Our government’s tax revenue has decreased, the unemployment rate has risen, and the governments and people of neighboring countries have made a fortune,” the official said.

Environmental Awareness Needs to be Strengthened

If people don’t have the consciousness and habit of not throwing litter, then any ban is futile.

“In my opinion, the environment of Kenya has not been cured. People used to throw plastic bags and now they are throwing new types of bags. They don’t realize what they can do to really protect the environment.” A manager of a recycling plant said, “Kenya has many illiterate people who can’t understand these environmental concepts. It takes time for the whole society to improve.”

Plastic Waste Management Has a Long Way to Go

If Kenya wants to win this battle for plastics, it still needs concerted efforts at all levels of society.

The reason why the rate of plastic recycling in developed countries so high is because of their well-developed infrastructures. Now, the scarcity and backwardness of infrastructure have hindered the further development of the plastics recycling industry in Kenya. Currently, Kenya’s largest urban dumping site (Dandora Dumpsite) has been overloaded for nearly a decade. Due to a lack of formal landfills in the local area, people are illegally piling up garbage. Furthermore, there is no large-scale garbage incineration plant. Instead, people burn garbage in broad daylight, on the streets.

“There are three waste incineration plants in Kenya under construction,” NEMA staff said. “Although the number of incineration plants is far from enough compared to the domestic yield of plastic waste, it is still a good start.”

In addition, NEMA has begun to supervise the Dandora Waste dumping site, which has been in operation for an excessive amount of time and plans to transfer excess plastic and other waste to the incineration plants to mitigate the harmful effects to the local environment.

Enterprise: Manufacturer Responsibility Extension System

To prevent the government from issuing another ban, this “one size fits all” policy has severely damaged the survival and development of manufacturers.

That is exactly why PETCO Kenya came into being.

PETCO Kenya is a non-profit organization founded more than a year ago. Its purpose is to allow more plastic bottle manufacturers to take responsibility for their own plastic bottles through the EPRS (Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme). They charge manufacturers a fee to fund individual recyclers and recycling companies, with a view to achieving a 70% recycling rate of plastic bottles by 2023.

“We still face many challenges now. For example, there are currently only 14 members, mostly large companies such as Coca-Cola. There are about 200 small and medium-sized plastic bottle manufacturers in Kenya, but most of them are unwilling to participate, leading to severe responsibility-sharing inequality.” PETCO Joyce, the person in charge, said, “We hope to get government policy to support us in the near future. Only then will more plastic manufacturers try to be involved and provide financial assistance to the plastic recycling industry to fulfill their responsibilities.”

Citizens: Cultivate Environmental Awareness and Habits

The ultimate solution to solve plastic pollution fundamentally is not a simple and rude ban. Instead, it must be done from the public’s consciousness and habits.

“In the second half of this year, we will hold a large number of events, such as the Plastics Industry Sustainability Innovation Competition, Kenya’s ‘Plastic Plan’ conference, etc. We hope that future Kenyan citizens will have the awareness and classification of plastic waste.” KAM’s official disclosed.

In addition, PETCO and Taka Taka Solution have been placing plastic waste recycling bins in supermarkets to inform people that plastic waste has a recycling value, thus cultivating people’s awareness and habits of garbage collection.

“Only when people’s consciousness changes, the environment here can really get better,” said an elderly local resident.

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