At the counter of almost every supermarket, the cashier will ask you whether you are buying a carrier bag to add the cost to your shopping bill.
As the country marks one year since the ban on single use of plastic bags, shoppers have finally adjusted to life without plastics. Biodegradable bags, envelopes and cartons are now the norm.
It has also been a year of learning and creation of new revenue streams for entrepreneurs but also 12 months of trying to beat a state policy by unscrupulous traders and cheeky Kenyans. However, for shoppers in big towns and cities where enforcement is strict, it is either you carry your own bag or buy a new one which costs a minimum of Sh7.
Stephen Ngugi, who runs a stall at City Market in Nairobi, had never imagined life without plastic bags before they were banned. A year on and his greatest disappointment is a slowdown in sales because of the high cost of alternative packaging.
“When a customer comes to buy groceries from me oftentimes they may fail to make the purchase because they do not have the compostable bag to carry them in,” Ngugi says.
“The others are reluctant to buy anything from us because it would cost them another Sh10 for packaging.”
For shoppers like Miriam Nyawira, the inconvenience of having to buy a bag every time she wants to purchase essentials is taking a toll on her finances.
“It is very annoying. I have hundreds of such bags in my kitchen because of this law,” she says.
“The government should have realised that there are times people do impromptu purchases and you had not carried a bag with you.”
Interviews with a number of supermarket supervisors showed that at least 70 per cent of shoppers prefer to carry their own bags in order to avoid the extra cost during shopping. Large biodegradable carrier bags can cost up to Sh80.
Some counties such Nairobi and Uasin Gishu are considering forcing supermarkets to stop charging shoppers for the carrier bags but they have not passed relevant laws yet. The Retail Traders Association of Kenya (RETRAK), a lobby group for retailers, says it will be impossible to enforce this law.
“For us, the carrier bag became a listed item because before the ban our top three expenses were salaries, rent and plastic bags,” says Wambui Mbarire, the RETRAK chief executive.
“Yes we have lost because plastic bags were also advertising tools but whether to offer biodegradable bags for free or not remains a business decision for individual retailers,” Mbarire says.
Yet, this was the intention of the government when it introduced a year ago. First, stop manufacturers from producing plastic bags, then prevent people from throwing away shopping bags like they did with plastics. This is because biodegradable bags have a high acquisition cost compared to plastic bags which were being dished out.
Those found breaking this law risk a four-year jail term or a Sh4 million fine. Despite more than 40 countries in the world having passed some form of law banning plastics, Kenya’s embargo was the harshest and media houses noticed it world wide.
“Kenyans producing, selling or even using plastic bags will risk imprisonment of up to four years or fines of $40,000 (£31,000) as the world’s toughest law aimed at reducing plastic pollution came into effect,” wrote British publication The Guardian.
Available scientific evidence shows plastic bags take between 500 and 1,000 years to break down. They also enter the human food chain through animals. It took Kenya 10 years to finally effect the ban on plastics that seems to be working after two failed attempts in 2007 and 2012.
So publicised has this particular ban been, especially due to the harsh penalties, that Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan have sent their government officials to Kenya to learn how to implement similar bans in their countries.
A year on and the streets appear cleaner in major towns such as Nairobi. A report released last week by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) Complaints Committee says the amount of garbage in majority of the counties has impressively reduced.
“Generation of solid waste has reduced by over 50 per cent in almost all counties as a result of the plastic bags ban, which took effect on August 28, 2017.
This proves that plastic bags contributed to almost 50 per cent of waste generated in towns daily,” says the report.
The report also said counties were yet to upgrade their dumping sites to sanitary landfills, despite the ease in waste management.
“Unfortunately, all counties are still operating on dumping sites, none has upgraded to sanitary landfills, partly because of challenges of acquiring land, funding and lack of technology to recycle or utilise waste,” reads the report.
Early to celebrate
Titus Choge, an environmentalist at the Lapsset Corridor Development Authority (LCDA), believes it has all to do with the high price of biodegradable bags though it is still early to celebrate.
“If you imagine that you spent around Sh50 on a bag, you are less likely to throw it than the ones you would get for free,” Choge says.
But in the low-income neighbourhoods of Nairobi such as Kayole, Dandora, Njiru, Huruma and Kibera, the plastic bags have quietly made a comeback.
Initially, shoppers who wanted to buy boiled beans for recooking at home, for instance, were told to carry a bowl. But now they don’t have to do that because traders have brought back the plastic bags.
The situation is worse in most rural towns and markets, where you think the ban is not still in place.
While admitting this is a problem, Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko says the biggest issue is the country’s porous borders.
“Also taking into account that the use of plastics was a widespread problem, it would take time before they are completely eliminated as there is also the question of enforcement,” Tobiko says.
“The National Environment Management Authority is also understaffed but if I was to give an audit of our successes one year on, I would say we are at 70 per cent success.”
Still, the ban only covers single use carrier bags as there have been no alternatives for products that are wrapped in plastic such as soap, bread, chemicals, detergents, confectionaries and pastries.
In order to keep bread and cakes fresh, for instance, moisture has to be prevented from escaping and so far very few companies use waxed paper, which has almost similar qualities to plastic bags but are biodegradable.
And with most counties lacking proper waste-disposal systems, such plastic wrappers find their in open spaces, threatening to erode altogether the gains already made.
Dandora dumping site in Nairobi, for instance, is still chocking in plastics while a recent report said the Indian Ocean at Malindi is not fit for marine life.
The Galana River, which empties in the ocean at Malindi, sources part of its water from the Nairobi River.
Manufacturers, who were against the ban from the very beginning, have never forgiven the government and insist there should be better alternative to the plastics.