Kenya recently announced a ban on one of the most common materials used in the country’s packaging sector - plastic bags. This includes the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging.
This isn’t the first time the East African nation has tried to do this and the directive comes about 10 years after the first attempt. That one failed, primarily because of a lack of consistent follow up on the agreed implementation plan.
My research on the management of plastic waste in urban Kenya shows that this new ban is not realistic. The policy direction is not based on the local context or any extensive research regarding implications of the ban. It doesn’t consider the impact that it will have economically or give due consideration to other environmental alternatives.
Kenya’s plastic bag industry
Plastic materials offer a number of advantages over other conventional packaging materials. They are malleable, light, low cost and can be produced in a variety of shapes and sizes. Because of this, every year over 260 million tons of plastics are produced globally. Of this, nearly one trillion plastic bags are made and used. This makes them an important feature of the packaging sector.
Plastic bag manufacturing forms a sizeable portion of the plastic manufacturing sector. It has a long history dating back to the 1930s. Today there are over 30 plastic bag manufacturers with a combined capital investment worth over USD$77.3million (Ksh5.8 billion). They employ up to 9,000 people, both directly and indirectly. Some 100 million plastic shopping bags are given out every month by supermarkets. This is a massive contribution to the plastics sector and to the country’s economy.
Plastic bags also have an extremely important role in the average person’s daily life as they stand out for their excellent fitness for use, resource efficiency and low price. For Kenya, where 56% of the population live on less than a dollar per day, plastic bags support the “kidogo” economy - synonymous with the majority. This economy is based on the small amounts people buy - for example one cup of cooking oil, or a handful of washing powder or squeeze of toothpaste. To take these home they need the small plastic bags.
But because plastic bags are resistant to biodegradation, they cause long-term pollution to various natural environments from oceans to soil. Of the 4,000 tons of single use plastic bags produced each month, about 2,000 tons end up in Kenya’s municipal waste streams. Half of these are lightweight bags with a thickness of less than 15 microns.
Because of these issues, a variety of policy measures can be introduced to manage plastic waste. These include a ban on the production of certain plastics, levying taxes, mandatory recycling targets and adoption of anti-plastic bag campaigns.
Kenya has chosen the path of a ban on use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging. But my research shows that plastic waste recovery and recycling is a better strategy for sustainable plastic waste management. This is particularly true for developing economies because employment opportunities can be created within the recycling chain.
One option that won’t work is substituting plastic bags with biodegradable ones. First, the tear strength of biodegradable packaging bags is low compared to their petrochemical counter parts. They also have a high rate of water absorption. Most developing countries are also not equipped with the technological capacity to produce biodegradable material. Lastly, they are still not cost effective. The cost of most bio plastic polymers fall in the range of USD$2-5 per kg, compared to approximately USD$1.3 per kg for the usual petrochemical polymers. These factors make biodegradables a poor substitution.
Which is why the solution lies with plastic recovery and recycling.
Recovery and recycling
The reuse and recycling of plastic waste makes much more sense – particularly since Kenya doesn’t have a petrochemical industry needed to make plastic. Raw materials for the plastics and polythene industries are imported from overseas.
Plastic waste recycling is not a recent phenomenon in Kenya - it dates back to the 1960s. A 2001 survey showed that over 90% of Kenya’s plastic manufacturing industries have internal reprocessing capacity for their own waste and rejects.
Trading in plastic waste has been practised in Kenya since the 1980s. Waste pickers and small-scale traders started to sell unprocessed plastic waste directly to plastic producers for use as a raw material in the manufacture of new plastic products.
This plastic waste collection, by informal actors, presents a more realistic and sustainable solution to plastic waste management in Kenya. The waste becomes a source of raw material for the production of plastic materials, creating an interdependent relationship between solid waste management systems and plastic production.
Kenya needs to create an integrated plastic waste management system. It already has three well established categories of plastic waste recycling industries. These need to be properly linked to plastic waste collection and separation chains.
It would need the support and coordination from government, industry and civil society at all levels. Including:
Separating plastic waste from other waste streams and the further separation of various plastic materials for effective use of different polymer wastes in production.
The protection of waste pickers and those who add value including washing and sorting to plastic waste
The allocation of space for waste separation centres
Technological and financial support for waste processing
Education outreach programs
Plastic product marketing to popularise the diverse products
Introducing deposit and return systems in supermarkets
Improved transport logistics or plastic products and plastic waste so that such can reach their destinations in time.
Kenya would be better off pursuing waste management strategies. These include waste separation and the development of rules that require plastic industries to take back certain quantities of plastic waste from the solid waste management system to enhance recycling.
The report, commissioned by ICAEW and produced by partner and forecaster Oxford Economics, provides a snapshot of the region's economic performance. The report focusses specifically on Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, South Africa and Angola.
According to the report, the African continent accounted for 41% of Kenya's exports in 2016 while Europe and Asia each accounted for approximately a quarter of total exports. Uganda held the position of Kenya's largest
single export destination accounting for 11% of total exports during 2016.
Agricultural products such as tea and flowers made up the bulk of exports. However, whilst the country has an advantage in terms of value-added compared to regional African peers, this story is not replicated beyond Africa. Receipts from these commodities are largely determined by factors such as global commodity prices and domestic weather conditions (affecting production), and not necessarily the state of world trade.
Michael Armstrong, ICAEW Regional Director, Middle East, Africa and South Asia said: "Kenya stands to benefit from stronger growth in the East Africa region as it is well positioned to take advantage of rising demand for manufactured goods. Furthermore, its location and relatively developed transport infrastructure will allow the country to act as the gateway into the East Africa region."
The EAC is considered the most progressive trade bloc in Africa. Collaboration on regional infrastructure has reached a level rarely seen on the continent with construction of the $26bn Lamu Port - Southern Sudan - Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor underway. Furthermore, a Single Customs Territory (SCT) system will take effect across the EAC from July 31, facilitating trade between member states by electronically connecting countries' custom clearance systems. A pilot programme involving certain goods and entry points has generated positive results, and if implemented successfully, the SCT could significantly stimulate trade in the region by reducing the cost of doing business.
However, the bloc is not without its challenges as the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) recently cautioned against the signing of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the EAC and the European Union (EU) in its current form, which does not bode well for the EPA's implementation. Kenya stands to lose the most without the agreement as it is not classified as a least-developed country, it would not receive duty-free and quota-free access under the EU's Everything-But-Arms initiative.
Non-tariff barriers are another major concern for EAC member states. A monitoring tool identified 19 non-tariff barriers that remain unresolved, ranging from restrictions on Kenyan beef exports to Uganda, to the requirement that companies exporting to Tanzania should register, re-label and retest goods already certified by other partner states.
More than 70% of Africa’s population depends on subsistence agriculture for food, jobs and income. The continent has immense potential to feed itself and the world – it’s home to over 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. But this potential isn’t being realised.
Africa is a net food importer. Imports are expected to increase from USD$39 billion in 2016 to over USD$110 billion by 2025.
Food production is desperately low in the region. This is largely because of poorly developed farming technologies which drive rain fed farming practices. On top of this is the fact that there are poorly developed climate and weather alert systems to help farmers plan for crop seasons and adopt better ways of farming.
Farmers can’t access reliable and usable weather data. Information is often unavailable and even if it does exist, the quality is poor or it’s inaccessible to those who need it most. Farmers don’t get efficient information on drought forecasts, rainfall distribution and pest outbreaks.
This is because African governments and development agencies don’t understand and prioritise the value of climate and weather data. This has stifled investment in infrastructure and proper functioning of state institutions charged with collecting and serving climate and weather data.
There are funds that African governments can tap into. One example is the Green Climate Fund adopted in 2011 as the funding arm of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It has raised USD$10.2 billion to finance adaptation and mitigation projects and programmes in developing countries.
For the fund to deliver on its potential, it must finance infrastructure on basic meteorological observations, for example, to generate climate and weather data fit for agricultural purposes. This will provide a boost for farmers’ ability to withstand dry and rainy seasons and to adopt the correct farming practice.
Africa needs to acknowledge and welcome the role of the private sector too. Without its investment Africa won’t be able to bridge the massive gap in infrastructure needed to collect reliable data, and to make it easily available. But that would mean sharing what data there is. A major rethink of how this is viewed is long overdue.
A lack of data
In the horn of Africa farmers in Somalia are grappling with droughts and poor rainy seasons. This has affected food production, making more than 5 million people food insecure. These farmers have no knowledge of how long and how intense the droughts will be. Information like this would help them decide when to plant and harvest.
In Cote d’Ivoire, cocoa farmers live in fear of heavy downpours in the rainy season which can lead to their farms flooding. This is a major threat to cocoa which accounts for 20% of the country’s gross domestic product. Around 5 million people depend on the cocoa industry.
If farmers were warned about intense rainfall they could take action to try and mitigate the risks. For example, those in low-lying areas could enhance soil structure to improve water filtration in times of flooding.
The National Meteorological and Hydrological Services is mandated by national laws and recognised in the Convention of the World Meteorological Organization.. Its aim is to collect and serve meteorological and hydrological forecasting and warning systems at country level. But it operates well below capacity in several African countries because of under funding and low visibility.
In Africa, about 80% of the data from the meteorological service is unable to provide proper climate information and early warnings. This is as a result of decades of neglect by governments. It is worse in Africa than anywhere else in the world because massive investment and modernisation is needed.
Some African countries have a small number of operational meteorological stations to make important data available. In the Omo-Gibe region of Ethiopia, for example, hydrological equipment was installed three years ago by the government and the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
But the World Metrological Organization estimates that an additional 4000 to 5000 basic meteorological observations are needed across the continent. The World Bank estimates that about USD$1 billion is needed to modernise Africa’s meteorological services. It also estimates that a minimum of USD$400 million to USD$500 million per year will be needed to support modernised systems, including staff costs and operating and maintenance costs.
The private sector could play a role
Governments don’t have the capacity and expertise to provide complete solutions, particularly when it comes to the investment needed. They will require partnerships in the agriculture, insurance and telecommunication sectors. These partnerships are necessary for the collection and the delivery of data and for critical services including risk analysis, commodity prices, insurance and secure payment schemes.
There are good examples of innovative solutions being put in place. ECONET, a local mobile phone operator in Zimbabwe, recently started a large scale weather-indexed insurance for farmers in Zimbabwe, known as Ecofarmer. The service has benefited 900,000 farmers so far.
Strong political support is needed to increase smart systems through partnerships – between national authorities, technical agencies, non-governmental organisations and the private sector.
But, most importantly, African governments must invest in modernising their weather and climate data. And they must forge strong partnerships with private companies and businesses.