Kenya can reap green dividends from plastic waste management

By Gauri Gupta | Sep 25, 2023
Plastic waste. [iStockphoto]

Studies and research show that the human population generates more than 400 million tonnes of plastic each year and that this figure is expected to triple by 2060. Of this, only 10 to 15 per cent is collected and recycled.

The rest is either land-filled, burnt, or becomes litter. Plastic is extremely durable and can takes hundreds of years to degrade. Meanwhile, we continue to bear the brunt of the adverse effects of exposure to plastics and microplastics on our health, oceans, flora, and fauna. One report indicates that the annual social and economic cost of plastic pollution could be as high as $600 billion.

It is therefore no surprise that plastic pollution is receiving significant global attention as a major threat to our environment. The UN Environment Assembly in March 2022 adopted a historic resolution where all 193 UN member states decided to end plastic pollution.

The intent is to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution by end of 2024.  Closer home, Kenya is now emerging as a leader in the fight against plastic pollution. Over the past few years, it has passed legislation around waste management and produce responsibility.

Kenya is amongst the first countries in East Africa to limit single-use plastics and sign the Clean Seas initiative to rid waterways of plastic waste. In 2017, Kenya made the bold decision to ban single-use plastic bags, becoming one of the first African countries to commit to limiting plastic in its waterways. As of June 2020, visitors to Kenya’s national parks, beaches, forests, and conservation areas are no longer allowed plastic water bottles, cups, disposable plates, cutlery, or straws into protected areas.

The government’s commitment to steer the country towards a circular economy is seen through its collaboration with private sector players such as the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, Kenya Private Sector Alliance and Kenya Association of Waste Recyclers, to name a few.

Despite Kenya having stringent laws in place to prevent plastic pollution, it still suffers with this non-biodegradable form of waste across the country. Kenya has been grappling with the issue of plastic waste for decades with many plastic products, especially bottles, being discarded improperly and ending up in environmentally sensitive areas. According to UN-Habitat, the greater Nairobi area, for example, generates about 3,207 tonnes of waste per day, 20 per cent of which is plastic. 

The good thing about plastic waste is that it can be repurposed and recycled, and therein lies the solution to move to a circular economy and ultimately contribute to a greener economy. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastics circularity has three tenets: eliminate, innovate and circulate.

This means that we should strive to eliminate plastic products we don’t need, innovate so that all plastics that we need are designed to be safely reused, recycled, or composted and circulate everything we use to keep it in the economy and out of the environment.

A now emerging popular concept is up-cycling plastic waste, which entails reusing it to make new innovative products that are more valuable and of higher quality than the original waste material. Our experience has shown that reducing plastic waste through recycling can save businesses money and create new green job opportunities in the recycling industry.

Another emerging opportunity is in plastic credits, which has gained traction in recent years as a means of addressing the global problem of plastic pollution. The basic idea behind plastic credits is to develop a market-based solution that encourages businesses to reduce their use of plastic and invest in plastic waste management and recycling programs by putting a monetary value on reducing plastic waste.

A plastic credit is a certificate representing the collection of a specified weight of plastic waste that has been recovered and/or recycled, which would have otherwise ended up in the natural environment. These credits are measurable, traceable, and verifiable, ensuring that they represent actual reductions in plastic waste. There are two key participants in plastic credits. One is companies that use plastic in their products and packaging. The other is projects that collect plastic from the environment and, or recycle plastic that is collected.

The idea is that by establishing a market for recycled plastic, businesses and governments will be encouraged to invest in a recycling infrastructure, which will help create jobs and stimulate economic growth. Plastic credits can also encourage innovation in plastic recycling technology, making recycling plastic waste easier and more cost-effective, and are a useful tool in promoting a green economy, as they incentivise businesses and organizations to reduce their plastic waste and invest in more sustainable practices.

The menace that is plastic pollution will continue to persist and the onus is on all stakeholders to put in place not just stop-gaps, but transformative action plans that are scalable and have long-term effects.

While the government’s key role should be to create policy frameworks and enforce them, the private sector and society at large has a duty to adopt the principles of a circular economy including elimination of waste and pollution, circulation of materials and products and regeneration of natural systems.

Unless there is a coordinated multi-stakeholder effort, all past actions towards plastic pollution eradication will be for naught.


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