When the Ministry of Environment banned carrier plastic bags in August last year, Charles Makio, a passionate environmentalist and student at the Technical University of Mombasa, was relieved.
Finally, he thought, the severe damage the bags had caused to the environment would reduce. However, nine months on, he remains shocked, as he continues to encounter the banned bags. He, for instance, says his local grocery store still packs customers’ vegetables in plastic bags.
During the Transform Kenya Forum held on the just-concluded World Environment Day at the Kenya School of Government in Matuga, Kwale County, several other Kenyans admitted to regularly witnessing traders in various markets using the bags, exposing serious enforcement challenges. Shockingly, some even spoke about seeing traders found with the bags bribing enforcement officers.
The Transform Kenya Forum, which is in its first edition, is an initiative of The Standard Media Group Plc, which aims at bringing together ordinary Kenyans and experts to discuss and find solutions to common issues affecting Kenyans. The forum will be televised live as a series on KTN News, Standard Group’s 24-hour news channel.
The forum is a follow-up to the Standard Media Group’s Transform Kenya Awards, which the company launched in 2014 to identify and recognise Kenyans in different sectors of the economy, who are creating positive change in their communities.
Standard Group CEO Orlando Lyomu explained the media house’s motivation to launch the forum, stating; “We have decided to go beyond recognising those changing society to becoming change-makers ourselves. We want to provide solutions to the many problems facing our beloved country and help to speed up the pace of our national development”.
The first edition, which centred on environmental issues like reducing plastic pollution, attracted several participants, including the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), the National Environment Trust Fund (NETFUND), the Ministry of Environment, the Kwale County Government and Worldwide Fund for Nature Kenya (WWF Kenya).
Nema Director General Geoffrey Wahungu, who attended the forum, termed the enforcement of the ban a largely successful one, but also acknowledged the challenges raised by the public. He, however, termed the key to effectively enforcing the ban more of a public participation, urging wananchi to report violators at the county Nema offices.
George Mwaniki, the Director at NETFUND, an organisation that empowers Kenyans to sustainably manage the environment, also acknowledged the difficulties in implementing the ban.
"At the grassroots, the ban on plastic bags has not been fully effective. They are still in use in the markets. The Government should tighten laws," said Dr Mwaniki.
The forum shed light on a serious but largely ignored problem - pollution of the marine environment by plastics. For years, the Kenyan coast has been grappling with plastic pollution.
This year, in line with the World Environment Day theme - Reducing Plastic Pollution - the Transform Kenya Forum discussed ways stakeholders could save the country’s marine environment from pollution by plastics.
Charles Mitto, a plastic pollution research expert at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), attests to heavy plastic pollution in the coastal region, both in the ocean and along the beaches.
"The pollution is particularly high in the towns. The larger plastics are swallowed by birds and marine animals, clogging their ventilations and causing them pain, whereas micro-plastics dissolve in water, accumulating along the food chain and eventually reaching humans and causing complications like cancer," says Mr Mitto.
Maundu Muli, an environmental governance expert at the Centre for Rural Economy, warns that this problem is bound to worsen. According to Dr Muli, if drastic measures are not taken by 2050, plastic waste will form half of the content in oceans. However, he is optimistic that such a scenario could be averted through recycling.
The affected county governments, including Mombasa, Kwale, Lamu and Kilifi, have not put in place adequate measures to deal with the plastic pollution.
Mohamed Pakia, the Environment Executive for Kwale County, says the county is still in the process of setting up a mechanism for collecting and recycling plastic waste from the beaches.
As a result, local individuals and communities have been forced to take charge and fight the problem of plastics.
Steve Trot, a marine zoologist based in Watamu and involved in the Watamu Marine Association, confirms the heavy presence of plastics along the Kenyan Coast.
The association is using the plastics as a tool to empower the community, employing locals to collect the plastic waste, recycle and up-cycle it.
“We recycle 70 per cent of the plastic waste that is generated in Watamu through weekly waste collection along the beaches. The waste collection alone provides employment to 40 women and young people,” Trott says.
On Tuesday, Deputy President William Ruto honoured the association for its collection of more than seven tonnes of plastic.
"It is important to award innovations that tackle reuse and recycling of plastic," Ruto noted.
Numerous marine conservation programmes operate in the coast, like one run by WWF.
According to Lily Mwasi, a marine programme officer at WWF, the body’s efforts have been concentrated in Lamu, where the threat of plastic pollution is particularly due to heavy currents that push the waste further into the ocean.
Caroline Kinyulusi, Senior Communications Manager at NETFUND, says the biodegradable bags have potential of becoming the best alternative to plastic bags.
The Deputy President encouraged other counties to follow the example of Wajir, Makueni and Isiolo counties, which have set aside climate change mitigation funds.