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3 ways to improve Governance in The Fight Against Plastic Waste In Kenya

Guest blog by Celia Breuer

Over the past two blog posts, Celia Breuer, a development worker and anthropologist in Nairobi, has been reflecting on how Kenya’s Government approaches the fight against plastic waste. In this blog, she looks at three ways to improve governance in the fight against plastic waste in Kenya.

Last week, Celia emphasized how the messaging around plastics in Kenya wasn’t as effective as it could be, because it wasn’t very responsive to the Kenyan context in a few key respects. 

But, the fight against plastic isn’t just about getting consumers to change their patterns of consumption. It’s also about policy, governance, and regulating the businesses that actually produce and sell the plastic we consume.


Three ways to improve governance in the fight against plastic waste in Kenya

We often talk about single use plastic as a matter of individual choice – which leads to a lot of self-recrimination, but not always a lot of progress. But it is misleading to think of plastic waste management this way, especially in the context of economic disparities and emerging markets. Instead, here are three issues that must be addressed when it comes to the challenge of single use plastics in the country where I live; Kenya.

1. Gaps in Solid Waste Management Governance & Infrastructure

Kenya has seen a range of policies related to solid waste management but there are significant regulatory gaps in the existing waste management sector.

Like many countries, Kenya’s approach to recycling is very consumer-focussed. Kenya’s National Solid Waste Management Strategy outlines a waste hierarchy following global calls for the “Three R’s”: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. In line with this framework, Kenya banned single use plastic shopping bags in 2017.  It also banned single use plastics in protected areas, such as national parks, in 2020. While these are an important steps towards reducing plastic waste throughout the country, Kenya still produces between 500,000 to 800,000 megatons of plastic waste annually, of which only about 10% are currently recycled.

Local authorities are technically in charge of waste management, but most services are provided by private companies. The sector remains highly unregulated and with high costs for disposal and collection services, it largely focuses on wealthier parts of urban areas: About 75% of the household waste collected in Nairobi is from high income neighborhoods.

Most waste is either burned or collected at open dumpsites, most notably the largest site in Dandora, where informal waste pickers search for anything of value. Segregation is, at best, limited. A lot of plastic waste also ends up being contaminated due to the lack of segregation, meaning that some is no longer recyclable.

Bills have been proposed that would require segregation at household or neighborhood level. But, ultimately, strengthening waste management and regulatory systems must go hand in hand with budgetary allocations towards improving the waste management infrastructure to move from policy to practice.

2. Regulate Manufacturers and Manufacturing

But, even if we improve waste collection and disposal, the volumes of plastic waste produced will continue to pose a problem.

Another approach to reduce plastic waste is to also regulate manufacturers. Following the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), Kenya could hold companies producing plastic waste accountable to ensure sustainable product lifecycle management from sourcing raw materials to recycling the end product’s components and any byproducts. This could be done through taxation or incentives provided to companies that already engage in environmentally friendly behaviors. The 2019 Finance Bill already lowered taxes for companies operating a recycling plant from 30% to 15% for the first five years of operation, and such a policy could be extended to companies contributing to plastic waste reduction in other ways as well.

Instead of taxation, another option could be introducing a deposit system that marks up products sold in PET bottles by a few Shillings, which consumers receive back when they return the bottles. Such a system would also require funding for collection mechanisms and, of course, investment in recycling facilities. Generally, though, this approach is only effective for certain plastic items (such as PET bottles) and it would place an additional burden on the poor that cannot afford to pay deposits.

Manufacturers are also not required to label their plastics, making it incredibly difficult for people to know what’s recyclable and what’s not. Plastics are usually categorized into different numbers when it comes to recycling (for example, #1 is PET), indicating what type of plastic is contained in a product. Without this label, segregation is incredibly difficult. There are also no policies that regulate potential contamination at manufacturing level. For example, product labels glued onto PET bottles can make them non-recyclable.

Kenya could also improve the business environment for local recycling companies and address barriers to an efficient plastic waste value chain, such as the transport levies at county borders.

3. Beyond Locally Produced Waste

Lastly, policies that regulate waste management and promote recycling in Kenya must also regulate the waste that is imported.

While the African continent only recycles about 4% of its own plastic waste at the moment, African nations are increasingly facing pressures to absorb the waste from other countries. After China banned the import of plastic waste in 2018, Africa received four times the amount of the world’s plastic waste in 2019 as compared to previous years. The Western world literally dumping their waste in nations that are less wealthy. And this trend is on the rise, including in Kenya.

In 2020, The Times revealed how the American Chemistry Council (ACC) lobbied to influence the bilateral trade agreement between the US and Kenya, seeking to increase US export of chemical and plastic waste to Kenya and pushing for a reversal of Kenya’s plastic bag ban. Citing the director for international trade for the ACC, “Kenya could serve in the future as a hub for supplying U.S.-made chemicals and plastics to other markets in Africa through this trade agreement,” which is especially concerning with the introduction of AfCTA.

Activists in Nairobi demonstrated against the agreement, highlighting the environmental implications and that the deal would clash with the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste, to which Kenya is a party but the US is not.

Conclusion

These three issues require additional research to be addressed, but also, crucially, political will. Most of all, regulations must be standardized and harmonized across the nation with clearly defined roles for different stakeholders. But policy alone won’t fix the problem if we lose sight of the other layers that currently affect plastic waste in Kenya.


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