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Managing plastic waste requires fresh thinking and a holistic approach

By Flora Mutah | Published Thu, February 1st 2018 at 00:00, Updated January 31st 2018 at 21:43 GMT +3
File photo of a heap of plastic bags disposed behind go-downs in Industrial area in December 2017. [Willis Awandu, Standard]

In Kenya the main concern regarding Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) and the environment is the pollution associated with plastic packaging. According to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, approximately 50 million plastic bottles are used annually.

Due to their non – biodegradable nature, plastics can stay in the environment long after they are disposed especially when shielded from direct sunlight either due to being buried in landfills, hidden in forests or under water. 

Plastic waste management in Kenya is also associated with the general poor state of solid waste management and poor infrastructure. Waste management companies are unable to cope with the amount of refuse generated by the increasing population especially in urban areas. 

Poor public awareness

A large part of our waste management problems is also due to poor public awareness and perception about plastic waste. As an industry, we have to create awareness by advocating for behavioural change which is the most effective way of addressing the menace. Through this, we have an opportunity to educate Kenyans on the implications of plastic waste pollution on the environment, their health, and their livelihoods.   

Though there are concerns about the negative effects of plastics to the environment, PET is still a highly valued packaging material due to its strong, lightweight, non-reactive, economical, and shatterproof qualities. PET’s safety for food, beverage, personal care, pharmaceutical and medical applications is also recognized by health authorities around the world. 

Versatile plastic

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Due to its versatility, light weight and cost-effective nature, it exists in our everyday lives in numerous forms which explains why global production of plastics has surged from 15 million metric tonnes in 1964 to 311 million metric tonnes in 2014. 

As an industry, we are cognizant of the fact that though the growth of plastics comes with economic benefits, it has also largely contributed to solid waste.

This has led to a shift in the global conversation that seeks to address proper and sustainable management of plastic solid waste. Globally, environmentalists and policy makers are seeking alternatives to plastics such as glass and other material. 

We do not need to stop using plastic. What is needed are efficient and sustainable methods of waste management. Trucost, a sustainability think-tank estimates that substituting plastic in consumer products and packaging with alternatives that perform the same function would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to a total of $533 billion.  

A game-changer

In Kenya, the industry’s proactive nature on PET waste management has been a game-changer. In 2017, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) entered into a partnership with the government to kick off an advocacy and PET recycling initiative.

This is a win-win initiative that will ensure that a sustainable solution. The KAM members will adopt the successful model used by PETCO South Africa who run a successful industry-driven initiative where all PET bottles and waste are collected and recycled. 

For this initiative to be successful, it will require the enrollment of members of the public who can help in proper disposal of plastic bottles for recycling. Recycling PET has been considered a sustainable solution in various parts of the world because polyethylene terephthalate is a plastic resin and a form of polyester which is highly recyclable.

Innovation is also key, recycled PET can be used to produce an array of products such as polyester carpet fiber, fabric, shoes, industrial strapping, automotive parts and various art forms – just to mention a few. 

The benefits

Other than positive environmental impacts, this model will benefit Kenya’s economy, through the creation of jobs and promotion of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), who would be incorporated in the plastics recycling value chain which involves collection; sorting and separation; label removing, washing and shredding; separation by floating among other process all of which require manpower.  

A holistic approach with the active participation of the Public, Government, Industry and Non-Government Organizations is the only long-term solution to address any environmental concerns and solid waste problems. 

Ms Mutahi is the chairperson, Kenya Association of Manufacturers

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