Kenya marked last month's World Environment Day the best way possible. Once again, our country showed the world what true environmentalism is. This time, President Uhuru Kenyatta decided to ban all single use plastic from all of our national parks, forests, beaches and other protected wildlife reserves.
This includes everyday objects like plastic water bottles and straws that we all too often forget about and leave lying around, rather than throwing them away responsibly.
The ban comes exactly three years after Kenya adopted one of the toughest plastic-reduction measures in the world. It is hard to believe that since 2017, we have grown so accustomed to using more sustainable substitutes to plastic bags. Tourism CS Najib Balala said: “This ban is yet another first in addressing the plastic pollution catastrophe facing Kenya and the world, and we hope that it catalyses similar policies and actions from the East African community.”
There can be no doubt as to the damaging effects of plastics. Single use plastics that are discarded on our shores and in our parks hurt the wildlife, by choking turtles and other sea creatures as well as cattle and the Big Five animals. They also ruin the landscape and blight our parks.
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But unlike most of the wealthy world, Kenya and other low to medium income countries suffer disproportionately from plastic waste and environmental damage. Even the locust swarms that have afflicted East Africa for the greater part of a year are worse here than in other parts of the world due to changing sea patterns and other environmental factors. Even though we are not one of the world’s major consumers in terms of plastics, textiles, air travel or food waste, we still suffer from the damage caused by global warming.
But that does not prevent Kenya from setting an example for other nations who are more egregious in their waste and over consumption.
The UN Environment Programme estimates that the world has produced more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste since the 1950s. Of that, 60 per cent is predicted to end up either in landfills or the natural environment, rather than being recycled.
But it is better to start environmental protection later than never. And with all that is happening in the world right now, we are fortunate to have a president who cares about these things at all. Some global leaders push economic growth by increasing manufacturing output with little regard for the environment, and little oversight to regulate how much plastic people are using.
Take China for example. Its economy has continuously been growing but it has not taken steps to counterbalance the environmental damage that accompanies this growth. Or the United States, where the president and a large segment of the population deny basic environmental science and do not even believe that climate change is real.
Kenya does not have time for such nonsense. Protecting our earth and giving it to the next generation - the way we received it or in even better shape - is an imperative. We do not have time to prevaricate the reality of dwindling resources and greater environmental challenges.
The world is changing and Kenya is doing so at breakneck speed. The countries that are not succeeding from these changes, and not suffering from them, are the ones whose leaders now, in the 2020s, are using all of the available resources and knowledge to plan for the future.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Kenya drew millions of tourists each year to our safari parks to look at the Big Five and other amazing species in their natural habitats. Others come for the Swahili culture along our blue coastline. Hopefully, this will continue long after travel restrictions are lifted.
Without significantly reducing the amount of plastic that both Kenyans and tourists to our country are using, the size of animal herds will dwindle and Kenya will begin to lose its natural beauty.
But not all is lost, and there is room for some cautious optimism. Thanks to our bold leadership, I have little doubt that once a vaccine for the coronavirus is found, and things return to normal, Kenya is ideally placed to come out as one of the winners of this year.
Mr Guleid, former deputy governor of Isiolo County, is CEO of FCDC Secretariat. [email protected]