Plastic bag ban

Plastic bag ban may end up being a good thing (and it’s not about the environment)

With the Supreme Court’s ruling to annul presidential elections, it remains political season in Kenya. Okay, when is it never? This should not distract you from the significant development of Kenya banning polythene plastic bags. It’s motive is more than just saving the environment, as you will read and find out.

In late August, the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) announced that the ban on plastic carrier bags would be effected. Production, importation, sale or use of polythene bags would attract a sh.4 million fine or 4 years in jail.

In response, backlash came from various quarters. This includes the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM). KAM CEO, Phyllis Wakiaga said, “Currently, we have over 176 plastic manufacturing companies in Kenya which directly employ 2.89% of all Kenyan employees.” Consumers were also at a loss over how inconvenient shopping in Kenya is set to be. Secondary packaging by plastic bags is now a thing of the past.

Environmental reason

The big winners from this ban are the different kinds of green economy advocates. Environment Cabinet Secretary, Judy Wakhungu termed plastic bags “the biggest challenge to waste management in Kenya.” These bags are difficult to dispose of because of their sheer numbers. 24 million polythene bags are used in this country monthly. They also present a danger to our health.

Because they are not biodegradable these bags get entrenched in food chains that ultimately lead to us. They have been found ingested by domestic and wild animals, as well as marine life.

On close scrutiny, the environmental motive does not hold water. If anything, talk of a green industry is a huge contradiction. We must accept that industrialization is a dirty process. There is nothing green about a global supply chain of many different kinds of commodity.

Do bans ever work?

A ban means wasting resources on enforcing it. A ban means the mushrooming of an illicit market. If this was about the environment, emphasis would have been placed on the three R’s of waste management: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. An example is given of scrap metal in Kenya. It is no coincidence that it is poorer countries that opt to ban plastic bags. Wealthier nations typically institute a tax that results in massive drops in use, of polythene bags.

The real reason for plastic bag ban

Countries like Kenya are faced with the challenge of formalizing the informal sector. The intricacies of squashing the informal sector cannot be understated. In Kenya, this provides 87.7% of jobs and contributes to 34.3% of GDP. It also reflects society better, unlike the formal sector, because 50% of it is made up of women. This data is by the Institute of Economic Affairs.

But this sector represents tax revenue lost. According to the Kenya Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), only a fifth of micro-businesses are registered by their respective constituencies. The informal sector is also not regulated and is characterized by low productivity. It also does not contribute to a conducive business environment. It’s painful for a retailers selling clothes, from a rented and rated shop, in Eastleigh to compete against informal stands right outside their shops. Or for a supermarket to have to outdo opportunists selling stuff off their cars at the centers of confluence they have created (at great risk and fee).

The plastic bag ban can be an opportunity

If we’re to answer the question of creating jobs then the informal sector has to cede to formality. This is one step towards that end. Polythene plastic bags are a huge enabler of the easy-entry and easy-exit sector. It makes it that little bit harder to enter. When countries like Morocco, Cameroon and Rwanda instituted their plastic bag bans the informal sector was always mentioned as a heavy user. But also as the lesser likely to adapt.

There is a challenge of making resource-use sustainable and efficient in a World where everyone hopes to live the typical Western middle-income lifestyle. That is why we are bombarded with concerns for a green economy. I must repeat that this is a contradiction.

Since Kenya is coming close to the end of a cycle in a first phase of infrastructure investment, it is hoped by entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs that the, logical, shift to favorable policies can receive similar attention.