Kenya’s War on Plastic Pollution: How One Country is Leading the Charge for a Cleaner Environment
The challenges of plastic pollution seem insurmountable, but Kenya isn’t giving up, as it has continued to intensify its efforts in the fight against this corruption in its environment. The path to a cleaner environment in Kenya hasn’t been a smooth one; it is littered with the debris of plastic waste, and the country has very high hopes of coming through unscathed.
Kenya, the beautiful equatorial country in east Africa that houses the second highest mountain on the mainland, is a pearl on the continent. But this beautiful country in the Horn of Africa is faced with a serious problem of plastic pollution and has been waging an environmental and social war against it. The challenges of plastic pollution seem insurmountable, but the country isn’t giving up, as it has continued to intensify its efforts in the fight against this corruption in its environment. The path to a cleaner environment in Kenya hasn’t been a smooth one; it is littered with the debris of plastic waste, and the country has very high hopes of coming through unscathed.
Plastic pollution in Kenya
The introduction of plastics changed the world forever; its pollution, however, has also set the world in motion for what seems like a never-ending battle. Plastic pollution is a serious problem in Kenya. It is estimated that the country generates 500,000 tons of plastic waste every year, with only 10% of this being recycled. The rest of the waste ends up in landfills or in aquatic and terrestrial environments, where it can take hundreds of years to break down. The impact of plastic pollution is significant, with plastic waste choking waterways, harming wildlife, and damaging ecosystems. It also poses a threat to human health, with chemicals from plastic leaching into the environment and entering the food chain. In addition, plastic waste pollution in Kenya poses a serious threat to aquatic life. Some solid waste materials that have been retrieved from the country’s beaches include plastic beverage bottles, fishing gear, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic lids, plastic takeaway containers, and plastic grocery bags (UNCTAD, 2022). At least 14 million metric tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year, and microplastics are also becoming a major problem as they are easily ingested by aquatic animals due to their tiny mass. Plastic debris has become the most prevalent form of litter in the ocean, constituting 80% of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments, according to the Heinrich Böll Foundation (2022).
Kenya’s economy relies heavily on plastics, with a significant amount of plastic being used for single-use purposes such as packaging and bags. Unfortunately, the environmental crisis caused by this cannot be overemphasized, as it has led to plastic waste littering the streets, rivers, and oceans, polluting the environment, and threatening the health of humans and wildlife. But the country, while struggling to manage the mounting piles of plastic waste generated every day, continues to import and produce plastic, leading to more plastic waste generation and pollution. According to Business Insider Africa, Kenya makes the list as the fifth-highest producer of plastic waste in Africa, measuring 1,279,843 metric tons.
Plastic pollution in Kenya affects other areas and is intensifying the climate crisis. When plastic waste is not properly disposed of, it can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions through the release of methane and other harmful gases. It also prevents the percolation of water into the soil, fueling a food crisis, particularly in rural areas where agriculture is a primary source of income. It has also exacerbated inter- and intra-communal conflicts where natural resources, such as water sources and grazing lands, are limited. Plastic waste pollution in Kenya has significant social and economic impacts, as it affects livelihoods and tourism and can harm marine ecosystems, which are essential sources of income for many Kenyans.
The fight against plastic pollution in Kenya
The problem of plastic waste pollution cannot be ignored, with over 50% of the plastic produced in the country being used for single-use purposes, which in turn end up in landfills, water bodies, and the streets, desecrating the environment. The government of Kenya has taken some steps toward confronting the problem of plastic waste head-on. In 2017, the Kenyan government imposed one of the world’s toughest laws against the production, sale, and use of plastic bags, becoming one of the first countries in the world to do so. They also banned plastic bottles, straws, and related products in all national parks, national reserves, conservation areas, and any other designated wildlife areas (UNCTAD, 2022). The ban was aimed at reducing the amount of plastic waste in the environment and encouraging people to use alternative materials. The ban has had a positive impact, with plastic bag use dropping by over 80%, thus greatly contributing to the reduction of plastic pollution in the country.
However, despite the ban, plastic pollution remains a significant challenge in Kenya. Many manufacturers continue to produce plastic products, with no alternatives available for consumers. Moreover, the ban has not been entirely successful in reducing plastic pollution, as people have turned to other forms of plastic, such as food packaging and plastic bottles. Furthermore, inadequate facilities for waste collection, transport, and disposal and a lack of awareness of good management practices such as segregation have led to inefficient collection and disposal of plastic waste in Kenya. The ban has led to the loss of jobs, as many people relied on the plastic industry for employment. The government, in response, has implemented taxes on plastic products, making them more expensive for consumers and encouraging the use of alternative materials. This tax has been instrumental in reducing plastic pollution while generating revenue for the government. The government has also launched initiatives to promote proper waste disposal, recycling, and the use of biodegradable materials.
While the government has introduced measures to tackle the issue, more needs to be done to reduce the use of plastics and promote alternatives. The involvement of individuals and communities has been crucial in addressing plastic pollution, and everyone must take responsibility for their actions. Individuals and communities have also played a significant role in addressing plastic pollution in Kenya. Many people have embraced the use of reusable bags, bottles, and containers, reducing their reliance on single-use plastics. Community initiatives such as beach clean-ups and tree planting have also been instrumental in raising awareness of the issue and mobilizing people to take action.
The efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) have led to increased awareness about the impact of plastic on the environment and encouraged individuals and businesses to adopt more sustainable practices. One such innovative way of reducing the need for other building materials, particularly sand and concrete blocks, is the use of plastic and glass bottles in construction. This method not only reduces the demand for these materials but also reduces the amount of waste generated from plastic bottles. It also provides an affordable and sustainable option for building houses, particularly in areas where traditional building materials are scarce or expensive.
Moreover, there is still much work to be done to address plastic pollution in Kenya and other African countries. The Heinrich Böll Foundation (2022) highlights the need for more concerted efforts by governments, businesses, and individuals to adopt sustainable practices and reduce the use of single-use plastics. This could involve the implementation of more stringent regulations on plastic production and use, investing in recycling infrastructure, and promoting education and awareness campaigns on the impacts of plastic pollution on the environment and human health. With concerted efforts, Kenya is leading the way in the fight against plastic pollution, setting an example for other countries to follow.
A plastic Trojan horse
The world is facing a plastic crisis, with millions of tons of plastic waste polluting the oceans and threatening marine life. While the problem is widely recognized, some companies are using deceptive tactics to shift the blame away from themselves and onto consumers. One such tactic is the use of what can be described as a plastic Trojan horse,” a product that appears to be environmentally friendly but is, in fact, contributing to the problem. These products are marketed as eco-friendly or biodegradable, leading consumers to believe they are making a sustainable choice. However, in reality, many of these products are made from plastic and can take years or even centuries to break down. Some so-called biodegradable plastics only break down under specific conditions, such as high temperatures or ultraviolet light, which are not always present in the environment. This means that they can still contribute to plastic pollution, even though they may break down eventually. Additionally, these products may lead consumers to believe that they can continue using plastic without consequences, leading to a false sense of security. This is especially dangerous because, in reality, plastic waste is still a significant problem that requires urgent action.
For years, Kenya has been importing cheap second-hand clothing shipped in bulk from the Global North. Unbeknownst to the Kenyans, these cheap clothes were actually made from synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic, which are derived from petrochemicals and do not biodegrade. When synthetic clothing is washed, microplastic fibers are shed from the fabric and enter the water supply, eventually ending up in rivers, lakes, and oceans. These microplastics can be ingested by aquatic life and can also make their way into the food chain, potentially harming human health. The Changing Markets Foundation, a Netherlands-based non-profit organization that campaigns for sustainable production and consumption, released a report in February 2023 exposing the hidden export of plastic waste to the Global South. This unscrupulous trade was incentivized by the production of cheap, synthetic clothing by brands in the Global North.
In spite of the restrictions on plastic waste export around the world, an enormous volume of disguised plastic waste is shipped to Kenya, creating devastating consequences for the environment and the community. According to the report published by the Changing Markets Foundation (2023), over 300 million items of damaged or unsellable clothing made of synthetic (or plastic) fibers are exported to Kenya each year, where they end up dumped, landfilled, or burned, exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis. This Trojan horse of plastics is having grave consequences for Kenya’s terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems as some of these unwanted, unsellable materials end up in water bodies. This, in turn, undermines efforts to address the plastic pollution crisis plaguing the nation.
Governments and regulatory bodies need to step in and regulate the use of misleading marketing tactics to promote plastic products. There needs to be a clear definition of what constitutes eco-friendly or biodegradable, and products that do not meet these criteria should not be allowed to be marketed as such.
An unending plastic economy
Kenya is among the countries that have been hit hard by plastic waste, with the unending plastic economy posing a significant environmental challenge. Plastic waste continues to choke Kenya’s drainage systems, pollute rivers, and affect the marine ecosystem. The plastic industry in Kenya has been growing exponentially over the years, fueled by the country’s population growth, rapid urbanization, and the expansion of the middle class. Despite the negative impacts of plastic waste, the industry remains largely unregulated, allowing manufacturers to produce and distribute vast amounts of plastic products without considering the environmental consequences.
Plastic waste management in Kenya has become a major challenge due to inadequate infrastructure for waste collection, treatment, and disposal. This has resulted in large amounts of plastic waste being dumped in open spaces, rivers, and oceans. Furthermore, the lack of awareness among the public about the proper disposal of plastic waste has significantly contributed to the problem.
The Kenyan government has been implementing measures to tackle the problem, including the 2017 ban on single-use plastic bags. Even with fines going up as much as $40,000 (BBC News, 2019), the enforcement of these measures has been a challenge, with some manufacturers continuing to produce and distribute plastic bags despite the ban. Moreover, some manufacturers have resorted to producing smaller, thinner plastic bags, which are not covered by the ban, further exacerbating the plastic waste problem. The recycling industry in Kenya is also facing challenges, with most of the collected plastic waste being exported to other countries for recycling, leaving Kenya with little or no benefits from the process.
To address the plastic waste problem in Kenya, there is a need for a multi-stakeholder approach involving the government, the private sector, civil society, and consumers. The government needs to strengthen regulatory frameworks and enforce the existing bans and regulations on the production, distribution, and use of plastics. This could be achieved through imposing levies and taxes on plastic products, introducing extended producer responsibility schemes, and investing in recycling infrastructure. The private sector can play a critical role in reducing plastic waste by embracing sustainable production processes and investing in alternative materials. Civil society can also contribute by raising awareness among the public about the negative impacts of plastic waste and promoting responsible waste management practices.
In conclusion, the plastic economy in Kenya is unending, with significant environmental consequences. However, a multi-stakeholder approach that involves the government, private sector, civil society, and consumers can help tackle the plastic waste problem. While Kenya leads the charge for a cleaner environment, there is a need for urgent action to create a sustainable future while safeguarding the environment for future generations.
BBC News. (2019). Kenya Plastic Bag ban: Has Kenya’s Plastic Bag Ban Worked? BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-49421885.amp
Changing Markets Foundation. (2023). Trashion :The stealth export of waste plastic clothes to Kenya. https://changingmarkets.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/Trashion-Report-Web-Final.pdf
Heinrich Böll Foundation. (2022). Kenya Should Lead the Way in Ending Plastic Pollution in Africa. Heinrich Böll Foundation. https://ke.boell.org/en/2022/06/15/kenya-should-lead-way-ending-plastic-pollution-africa
Oluwole Victor. (2022). Business Insider Africa. 10 African Countries with the Highest Plastic Waste Production. https://africa.businessinsider.com/local/lifestyle/10-african-countries-with-the-highest-plastic-waste-production/0qw8trd.amp
UNCTAD. (2022). United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Digital Economy Report 2022. https://unctad.org/system/files/non-official-document/tcsditcinf2022d3_fs2_en.pdf
Geographer, environmental enthusiast, and a social scientist. He is concerned with human activities and their impact on the environment. A lover of history, natural sciences and the arts. A graduate of Geography and Environmental Management from the University of Abuja, Nigeria.