The only thing stupid in the Kenya Plastic ban is the Kshs 4 million fine

Kenya plastic ban went into effect midnight last night, and although you will not be arrested today if spotted carrying a plastic bag, the arrests are bound to start taking place in due course. In the wake of the Kenya plastic ban, a number of people including Ephraim Njega and Kennedy Kachwanya have poked holes in the ban, with Ephraim Njega liking the move as “chopping off your head to cure a headache”.

Ephraim Njega and Kennedy Kachwanya, alongside the manufacturers of the plastic bags, being the leading voices against the ban, have their reasons for viewing the ban as unnecessary, the top reason being the immediate unemployment that will befell the hundreds of thousands of Kenyans directly and indirectly employed by the plastic sector. The second top reason is the inconvenience shoppers will have to live with, especially shoppers of liquid goods and certain ready to eat food items like mandazi. Other reasons include the feeling that country is opting for plastic ban because it “is the easy way out” of a complex problem.

To mitigate against the issues raised by the voices against the ban, it has been suggested that proper waste management systems alongside viable plastic recycling  regimes are what should be implemented. More specifically, the voices have asked the country to borrow from the US and Europe that have implemented successful recycling procedures, right from garbage collection point all the way to recycling factories.

On waste management, there is no permanent way to manage the plastic wastes that will not ultimately damage the environment, particularly the marine life. Sending the plastic wastes to landfills has been shown to render those landfills permanently unusable, as plastics take 50 to 600 years to completely decompose. Also, the plastics decompose into dangerous compounds including but not limited to diethylhexyl phthalate and heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury. We know that the heavy metals are toxic substances, but so is diethylhexyl phthalate which is a toxic carcinogen.

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The recycling approach may sound viable, but as Tom Szaky who is the founder and CEO of TerraCycle Inc. and a leader in eco-capitalism and upcycling pointed out in an article published in 2015 in the website of Sustainable Brands, there are at least four major obstacles that have seriously derailed the success of plastic recycling in the United States. These obstacles include heterogeneity of plastic materials in size, colour, and shape and consumer confusion where consumers are unable to effectively sort between recyclable and non-recyclable plastics.

Another point worth noting about borrowing from the success of recycling in the United States and Europe is that despite higher levels of awareness in these places, only 9% of the plastics consumed in the United States get their way back to recycling plants. The figure, although more optimistic for Europe, is still less than 30%.

To emphasize the above points, Worldwatch Institute noted, “According to the United Nations Environmental Program, between 22 percent and 43 percent of the plastic used worldwide is disposed of in landfills, where its resources are wasted, the material takes up valuable space, and it blights communities. Recovering plastic from the waste stream for recycling or for combustion for energy generation has the potential to minimize these problems. However, much of the plastic collected for recycling is shipped to countries with lower environmental regulation. And burning plastic for energy requires air emissions controls and produces hazardous ash, all while being relatively inefficient.”

It is obvious that even in the developed more organized society managing and recycling plastic wastes has serious challenges, challenges that cannot be overcome overnight in disorganized disoriented societies like Kenya. The culture of Kenyans when it comes to handling household wastes is to foremost bundle up all wastes together. Secondly, the Kenyan find it more expedient to throw out trash anywhere in an empty space, not caring what the heck that waste will do to the environment.

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Even if measures that could ensure 100% recycling of plastics are adopted, the measures cannot be practically implemented, not only because the culture in Kenya makes such an implementation difficult, but because the implementers would rather take a bribe or two than take into custody the Kenyans that shall have refused to change their cultures. The best and indeed easy course of action is therefore to ban the damn plastics from Kenya.

Talking about bribes, I find it hilarious that someone thought that putting up a figure of Kshs 4 million as the fine those found disobeying the Kenya plastic ban will be required to pay. As you are aware, the plastics that have been banned are the plastic carry bags, with or without handles. These plastic bags are common with our mama mbogas and estate shopkeepers for wrapping small quantity items that generally cost between Kshs 5 and Kshs 100. I could guestimate that 90% of those who use these plastic bags on a daily basis are people who cannot even get close to Kshs 1 million as income, not in one or two or three years, but in the totality of their adult lives. They will never ever be able to raise the Kshs 4 million in fines.

The alternative to punish the offenders of the Kenya Plastic ban will therefore be to jail them – but as many know, parting with Kshs 50 or Kshs 100 or Kshs 1000 will be easier than let oneself get inside that Kanjo van. The hefty fines that is common in Kenya has also fueled corruption elsewhere especially in the traffic police department. Let me illustrate using two personal experiences.

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In 2007 I was arrested for loitering at night. The police officers who arrested me demanded that I part with Kshs 1000 for them to let me go, but a friend told me that if I could persevere a night in the filthy police cell, be taken to court and plead guilty the following morning, I would part with Kshs 200 only in fine. I decided to borrow my friend’s advice.

In 2015, another friend and myself drove all the way from Nairobi to Arusha then to Dar es Salaam, then from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza then back to Nairobi. On our trip from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza, we paid several instant fines due to various traffic offences we had committed, with the fines ranging Kshs 500 to Kshs 1500. We paid no police officer a bribe to let us go.

On the Kenyan roads, we also committed two or three offences and were caught ones. Instead of parting with Kshs 20,000 that was required for the fine, the fine that was to paid after spending a night in a police cell, we decided to bribe the officer with Kshs 1000.

In conclusion, it is easy to see that the only thing stupid in the Kenya plastic ban is the Kshs 4 million fine that has been imposed on the offenders.

Odipo Riaga
Managing Editor at KachTech Media
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