Opinion: Why a Plastics Pact is recipe for better environmental management practices

By Josephine Wawira

The year is 2016, outside a busy supermarket in one of Nairobi’s estates. Shoppers flow in and out carrying their groceries and other shopping items with plastic carrier bags. These are the order of the day, but their pollution to the environment is devastating.

A year later in 2017, the Kenyan government would enact the ban on production, sale and use of plastics carrier bags. The ban is considered one of the sternest in the world and whose success rate is now recorded at approximately 80%.  

Fast forward to 2021, we have made tremendous strides in the fight against plastic pollution as a nation, with a ban on specific single use plastics in all protected areas taking effect from June 2020. There are also ongoing and ambitious plastics initiatives in the country, such as the Kenya Plastic Action Plan and the development of the Kenya Extended Producer Responsibility Organization (KEPRO). The PRO, once established, will ensure plastics are collected, sorted and recycled after use; giving producers a significant responsibility for the post-consumer phase of single-use goods under a scheme referred to as an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).  

However, while we applaud these advances, I would also wish to appreciate that more needs to be done to increase momentum on the efforts to address the environmental crisis; especially as we continue to deal with the ravaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. We just entered another lockdown period, and as the pandemic persists, so are the use of single-use masks, sanitizer bottles as well as other related plastic products. All these, ending up somewhere in the environment. Online food ordering has been on the rise as we increasingly stay indoors. Does your food delivery almost always include plastic cutlery that you just toss away in the dustbin because after all, you have better options at home? Can restaurants reduce if not completely do away with plastic cutlery for home deliveries at least? There are many ways in which we are still lacking when it comes to plastic waste management.  

Many businesses continue to face the challenge of reducing and even re-using plastics, especially where there lacks knowledge and information on sustainable alternatives. This is evidenced by the numerous enquiries made to Sustainable Inclusive Business, the knowledge center under the Kenya Private Sector Alliance. The organization has been at the forefront of championing for the swift shift from a linear to a circular economy; including the establishment of a plastics system that works. One such enquiry was received from a hotel in Sagana, a rising Kenyan travel destination.  

The hotel owner wrote, “here, I have a problem with getting rid of all the plastic bottles that campers and other clients leave at my site. Previously, we used to burn this in a hot water boiler, but the smell is a problem. Whilst I still ‘melt’ them down to reduce volume, and place in the landfill on camp, I’d like a better solution which I seem unable to find.”  

He added that “all our Mt Kenya trips have dedicated garbage removal containers /porters and plastic bottle collection by participants. However, as a Hon Warden with KWS, I am embarrassed by the continued filth on this mountain (as contrasted with let’s say Mt Kilimanjaro). Unfortunately, little is done by park officials to enforce recently introduced regulations and standard operating procedures regarding litter”.  

This example illustrates the urgent need for a collective intervention, if we are to move faster towards achieving the Vision 2030 Agenda as well as the Sustainable Development Goals.  

 There is a way; a recipe for better plastics management  

Plastic pollution is one of the most serious threats to the planet’s health. In Kenya, 73% of all plastics waste generated is uncollected and only 27% is collected: 8% collected for recycling and the remaining 19% disposed in unsanitary landfills or dumpsites. This is according to a recent report by IUCN. The effects of the pollution on the ecosystem go far and wide; from rainforests to the deepest ocean trenches and on our food chains when plastic waste is consumed by fish and livestock. From producers to consumers, we are all at risk and therefore must take a collective stance on a common solution. A plastics pact.  

Lessons from across the world as outlined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy, indicate that countries which have implemented a plastics pact are successfully eliminating unnecessary plastic components and items. They are also moving to alternative materials where proven and stimulating new reuse and refill operations in stores. Additionally, countries with plastic pacts including the UK, US, Canada, France, Chile, South Africa, Portugal and the Netherlands; are increasing job creation in the collection, sorting, recycling and manufacturing sectors, spurring action and boosting foreign investments among other milestones.    

If these indicators are anything to go by, developing a plastics pact in Kenya will be a major recipe for better plastic waste management. A pact will bind all stakeholders in the plastics value chain to embrace a common vision in which plastic never becomes waste. It will further stimulate industry led-innovation, dialogue and collaboration to create new business models, generate job opportunities, and unlock barriers to move towards a circular economy for plastic, with improved economic, environmental and societal outcomes overall.  

In the right direction  

As a country, we have so far taken bold steps that have put us on the global map as trailblazers in the fight against plastics pollution. We are only just beginning and together, we can do more to find longer lasting and sustainable solutions for plastics. I am confident that being consciously aware and accountable for our plastic consumption and waste disposal cultures; knowing what to eliminate, creating systems for reuse and recycling as well as circulating plastics within the economy and out of the environment, will go a long way.  

Valiant Kenyans are all around us, who are using their passions for the environment to make a difference. Lorna Rutto is a great case in point, having founded EcoPost, a social enterprise that collects plastic waste and turns it into commercially viable, highly durable, and environmentally friendly fencing posts. The project, whose products are used widely across Kenya, has created over 300 jobs and contributed a great deal in saving the environment from over one million kilograms of plastic waste. If you and I join Lorna and the other countless Kenyans and businesses providing innovative solutions, we will collectively create a bigger impact.    

Private companies, government entities, NGOs, researchers, and other stakeholders will not be left behind in this journey. Under a common pact and vision, we can steer faster towards a healthier and more resilient future.  

Josephine Wawira is the Communications Officer at Sustainable Inclusive Business.  

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