Wednesday, March 15, 2017

On the plastic bag ban

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, claiming powers conferred on her by sections 3 and 86 of the Environmental Management and Co-ordination Act (No. 8 of 1999), has banned the use, manufacture and importation of plastic bags used for commercial and domestic purposes. The Gazette Notice she published on the 28th February takes effect in 6 months.

I will leave my more experienced seniors in litigation to remind the Cabinet Secretary that the powers she is purporting to exercise in relation to the ban are non-existent. Instead, let us examine whether or not the ban is the most effective tool in the war against plastic waste as epitomised by the Kenyan penchant for littering the environment with plastic bags.

Plastics form an integral part of our lives these days. From furniture to utensils, shoes to clothing items, plastics are intimately intertwined with our lives in ways that their extrication will take effort and dedication. The most visible and annoying part of our lives with plastics are the plastic bags we receive every time we go shopping: supermarkets, bookshops, butchers, Mama Mbogas, pharmacists, produce distributors, cosmetologists and the men and women with whom we must have commercial dealings, use plastic bags to make our lives more convenient. As byproducts of the petrochemicals industries, plastics are one reason why less and less of petrochemical byproducts are wasted.

Our relationship with plastic bags is tied up intimately, also, with our relationship with our local, aka county, governments. Under paragraphs 2(g), 3 and 11 of Part 2 of the Fourth Schedule, county governments are responsible for refuse removal, refuse dumps and solid waste disposal, the [c]ontrol of air pollution, noise pollution, other public nuisances and outdoor advertising and water and sanitation services. With this broad mandate, the management of solid waste, including plastic bags discarded by a largely unthinking public, rests with the county government and in its failure shall the futility of the plastic bags ban lie. It is county governments' failure to effectively deal with solid waste that has roused the Cabinet Secretary to this fool's errand and its ineffectiveness can be blamed, in part, on county governments.

You, dear Kenyans, are not off the hook either. Any Kenyan whose basic education was completed in the 1980s and 1990s will remember that, in publicly-sponsored schools at least, children were exhorted, sometimes with a cane, to keep the environment clean. We never littered. We were conscientious about it. Some of us, I hope, internalised the benefits of a clean environment and are loath to litter with wild abandon. Many of you, however, are litterbugs of no mean repute. It doesn't seem to matter your academic credentials, economic accomplishment, station in life, age or relationship status: littering defines you. You litter on a colossal scale. Coupled with the lethargy and incompetence of your municipal authorities, you dump dozens of tonnes of plastic and other litter onto the environment without caring who will clean up after you.

The presumption that elimination of certain kinds of plastic waste will eliminate the plastic menace from the environment is naive. The substitution of plastic bags with more durable shopping bags, such as the ones promoted by supermarkets, or paper ones will not eliminate our plastic waste problem. We will simply replace one waste with another and the biodegradability of paper will not be the win/win aesthetic environmentalists will have you believe; the chemicals associated with the production of paper will, sooner or later, become a menace too. If you doubt this, visit Webuye, Rai-PanPaper mill's hometown and witness the aftereffects of the acid raid associated with paper production in Kenya.

If I had any confidence that the ban was part of a wider strategy to finally get a grip on its solid waste management problem. But I don't. The Cabinet Secretary doesn't seem to have gotten the buy-in of stakeholders including the vast majority of consumers ostensibly for whom the ban is being instituted. Manufacturers have been steam-rolled by this ban and it is almost certain that they will challenge the ban in the High Court. The National Treasury has not been consulted neither have the Foreign Affairs ministry nor the Industrialisation ministry, who must contend with the job losses and forex implications on the ban on manufacturing or importation. There is no strategy; that is a major reason why the ban will fail and the Cabinet Secretary will be left with egg on her face.

No comments: