Environment Day: Porous borders thriving Illegal plastic trade, undermining Kenya's environmental gains

In a setback to Kenya's efforts to combat plastic pollution, the porous borders with Uganda and Tanzania have emerged as weak links. This allows unscrupulous traders to smuggle banned plastic bags into the country.

This illegal trade has been flourishing, posing a significant challenge to the gains achieved since the plastic ban was implemented.

Amidst the picturesque landscapes and bustling markets along Kenya's borders, lies an illicit trade that thrives on banned plastic bags. 

 A customs officer at one of the major border checkpoints, who requested anonymity, revealed, "Smuggling of banned plastic bags is rampant here. The plastic bags are often concealed in legitimate cargo, making it difficult for us to detect them."

According to our investigation, smugglers take advantage of the weak border surveillance systems and rely on a network of intermediaries who facilitate the transport of banned plastic bags across the borders. A section of community members living near the borders also plays a significant role, as they are enticed by the financial gains associated with the illegal trade.

The Standard's investigation has uncovered a distressing trend of banned plastic bags being smuggled across border points such as Namanga, Malaba, and Busia. Once inside the country, these illicit bags are clandestinely sold to targeted traders, who then distribute them across different markets at prices ranging from Sh 10 to 20 per bag.

In an interview with David Lumbasi, who lives in Busia, shared his perspective on the issue. "We are struggling to make ends meet, and sometimes, we're left with no choice but to participate in this illegal trade. The money we earn by transporting these plastic bags helps us put food on the table for our families."

 Last year In Kisumu,The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) took action, arresting 25 individuals in possession of banned plastic bags. only 24 of them were prosecuted, and their fines ranged from Sh 2000 to 5000. The majority of those arrested admitted to obtaining the plastic bags from neighboring countries, highlighting cross-border smuggling's role.

NEMA plans to intensify crackdowns in border towns to apprehend suspects and combat this rampant vice. Tom Togo, County Director of NEMA, affirmed the challenges faced in controlling the influx of banned plastic bags, citing the weak border security as a significant hindrance. Togo emphasised that the low fines imposed by courts have failed to act as a deterrent. This has enabled culprits to persist in their distribution and use of banned plastics.

To better understand the environmental implications of this ongoing smuggling Rosemary Owigar, an environmentalist and lecturer at Maseno University, stated, "Plastic bags have a disastrous impact on our environment. They choke our rivers, suffocate wildlife, and contribute to the pollution of our ecosystems. The ban was a significant step forward, but these illicit activities undermine the progress we have made."

Despite the challenges, NEMA has recorded an 80 percent success rate in reducing plastic litter and promoting environmental conservation since the ban's implementation. Togo highlighted that plain fleecy white plastic bags remain a significant problem in the markets. Therefore, the enforcement team aims to eliminate their use by 20 percent in the current financial year.

The detrimental impact of plastic bags on the environment, livestock, fisheries, and tourism sectors cannot be understated. These bags take over 100 years to degrade, resulting in severe consequences. Prior to the ban, an estimated 100 million plastic bags were distributed in Kenya by supermarkets alone. The accumulation of these bags in drainage systems led to urban flooding, while recent studies revealed that over 50 percent of cattle in peri-urban areas had ingested plastic bags.

Nairobi residents have been identified as the leading culprits in noncompliance with the ban, with over 100 individuals arrested for possessing banned plastics since January. Togo lamented the blocked drainage systems within the city and the sight of scattered fleecy plastic papers blown by the wind, highlighting the urgent need for stricter enforcement measures.

 The ban stipulates that any person found contravening the provisions of the gazette notice shall face a fine ranging from two to four million Kenya shillings or imprisonment for a period of one to four years, or both.

In Mombasa, NEMA has observed a surge in the number of plastic bag manufacturers, and investigations are underway to apprehend them. Last month, one manufacturer was arrested and brought before the court. The majority of these plastic bags originate from outside the county, with only a few local outlets identified along the borders.

Despite the arrests, Togo expressed disappointment that the suspects were not charged, as a mere warning from the court is insufficient to deter them from continuing their illegal activities. NEMA plans to engage with the judiciary to establish stronger measures to deal with this offense effectively and ensure that the culprits do not go unpunished.

UN Report: "Plastic Pollution Threatens Global Ecosystems and Food ChainDetails highlights the severe threat posed by plastic pollution to the planet's health. It emphasizes the pollution caused by single-use plastics in ecosystems, from rainforests to the deepest ocean trenches. 

The report notes that the consumption of plastic waste by fish and livestock further compounds the problem, as it enters the human food chain. The report calls for increased efforts by governments and the private sector to promote resource-efficient design, production, use, and management of plastics throughout their life cycle.

Environmental observed that It is worth noting that the plastic ban has opened up new avenues for creativity and alternative livelihoods for youths, women, and People Living with Disabilities through the production of other types of carrier bags.

According to UN Plastic pollution remains one of the gravest threats to the planet's health, with single-use plastics contaminating ecosystems from rainforests to the deepest ocean trench. The consumption of plastic waste by fish and livestock further exacerbates this problem, as it enters our food chain.

If governments and the private sector fail to promote more resource-efficient design, production, use, and sound management of plastics throughout their life cycle, the United Nations estimates that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. Recognizing this urgency, Kenya has extended its ban on single-use plastics to protected natural areas, including National Parks, beaches, forests, and conservation areas, prohibiting visitors from carrying plastic water bottles, cups, disposable plates, cutlery, or straws.

Despite the challenges, Togo acknowledged that the ban has made significant strides in preserving the environment, with an estimated 80 percent reduction in plastic litter. However, she highlighted that plain fleecy white plastic bags remain a major problem in markets, and the enforcement team aims to eliminate their use by an additional 20 percent in the current fiscal year.

The menace of plastic bags extends beyond environmental concerns, impacting sectors such as livestock, fisheries, and tourism. Plastic bags, known for their slow degradation of over 100 years, have been responsible for clogging drainage systems, leading to urban flooding. Disturbingly, recent studies have discovered that over 50 percent of peri-urban cattle have plastic bags in their rumens.

Nairobi residents have been flagged as major non-compliers, with over 100 people arrested for possessing banned plastics since the beginning of the year. Blocked drainage systems and littered fleecy plastic papers blowing through the city demonstrate the ongoing struggle for compliance.

The ban imposes strict penalties, including fines ranging from two to four million Kenya Shillings or imprisonment terms of one to four years. However, NEMA's investigations have uncovered an influx of plastic bag manufacturers in Mombasa, with ongoing efforts to apprehend them. It was disheartening to note that 30 suspects were arrested in Muranga but were not charged, prompting NEMA to seek a dialogue with the judiciary for stronger action against offenders.

Amidst the challenges, the ban has brought about new opportunities for creativity and alternative livelihoods. The production of other carrier bags has provided avenues for youth, women, and people living with disabilities to explore sustainable business ventures.

Plastic pollution poses one of the gravest threats to the planet's health, with single-use plastics polluting ecosystems worldwide and infiltrating the food chain. The UN estimates that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean unless governments and the private sector prioritise resource-efficient design, production, and sound management of plastics throughout their lifecycle.

 In addition to the ban, Kenya has extended restrictions on single-use plastics to protected natural areas, prohibiting visitors from carrying plastic water bottles, cups, disposable plates, cutlery, or straws into these conservation zones.

As Kenya strives to uphold its plastic bag ban, the battle against illegal trade and the environmental consequences it poses at porous borders demands urgent attention. Governments, law enforcement agencies, communities, and individuals collaborate to fortify gains achieved and preserve the nation's natural beauty for generations to come.