The world produces 400 million tonnes of plastic per year, with only about 10% recycled. Since plastics are non-biodegradable and, in many cases, unrecyclable, there is an increasing burden on the environment to accommodate all of the plastic waste produced.
Currently, the world produces 400 million tonnes of plastics per year, while only less than 10 percent is recycled. Since plastics are non-biodegradable, most of which are often non-recyclable, there is an increasing burden to the environment to accommodate all the plastic wastes produced. As result, plastic wastes accumulate in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems causing harm to the biodiversity. This is further compounded by harmful waste management practices such as incineration, open burning and open dumping of wastes which causes harm to human health and livelihoods such as respiratory diseases and flooding respectively when surface runoff drainage are blocked.
Additionally, there is no transparency in the disclosure by companies manufacturing plastics on the chemicals they use in the production process. Indeed, some of the chemicals are suspected to cause endocrine disruption, increasing the risk of diseases such as diabetes, cancers and obesity.
In recent years, risks posed by plastic pollution has received global attention as a global environmental issue. To address the plastic pollution crisis, United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in its 5th session held in February 2022, adopted a resolution “End Plastic Pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument”, which was passed by more than 175 countries. The resolution provides the mandate to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to negotiate an internationally legally binding instrument to address plastic pollution throughout its lifecycle which is expected to be concluded by the end of 2024.
Kenya on the other hand has not been left behind in managing plastic pollution. The impacts of plastic pollution have invited an array of policy interventions from the government. The most celebrated was the ban on the importation, manufacture, sale and use of flat bags and carrier bags in August 2017, a ban that has been cited as one of most stringent and successful globally. The Kenyan government also effected a ban on single-use plastics in protected areas such as parks, beaches, forests and conservation areas in 2020. These two regulatory policies demonstrate Kenya’s dedication to the promotion of a clean and safe environment for both human and non -human entities as espoused in the Constitution of Kenya, Chapter---
However, the fight against plastics in Kenya is far from over owing to resistance from manufacturers. The ban against carrier bags and flat bags, for example, is reported to be 80% effective. The other 20% is accounted for by unabated loopholes for smuggling of plastics through illegal and porous borders. A study that was conducted by Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJD), in partnership with Nipe Fagio, Bio Vision Africa Trust (BvAT) and Global Initiative for Environment and Reconciliation (GIER) confirmed that scrupulous traders are still smuggling banned plastics from neighbouring countries through Kenya’s porous borders.
The international law and community should however, play its role in ensuring developing countries such as Kenya are not dumping ground for plastic waste. For Instance, the efforts by Kenya to protect its environment from plastic wastes have been undermined by continued pressure by the manufacturers and users of plastics to have Kenya as a gateway to import plastic waste to Africa, thereby turning Africa into a plastic dumping ground in the guise to promote recycling industry in Africa. This underhand lobbying was revealed in an expose by the New York Times in 2020, who obtained a letter from the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying arm of the chemical and fossil fuel industry which detailed the council efforts to influence the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Kenya and the USA to export plastic wastes and other chemicals to Kenya. Such a move not only undermines Kenya’s effort to control plastic pollution through the 2017 ban but also export toxic plastics and chemicals throughout Africa.
Kenya has developed a draft extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations. The draft EPR regulations provide a framework to ensure that a producer’s responsibility for their products is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life-cycle which may include collection, sorting and treatment for recycling or recovery. While this is a commendable move, the process has largely been developed with the influence of the plastic industry and has lacked the participation of the civil society organizations in Kenya to represent the interest of the Kenyan public. For instance, waste pickers who are key players in the waste management value chain are not explicitly captured in the regulation yet the entire recycling system is heavily dependent on them.
There is a clear demonstration since the world leadership passed the end plastic resolution early this year that plastic pollution management is a priority both at the global and national level. In the meantime, Kenya should continue to step up national action plans, firm up legal and policy framework and adopt measures to combat plastic pollution, including measures related to sustainable consumption and production while fostering international actions.
This article was published and circulated in the Kenyan media