Plastic Bans: Sign of Cowardice?

Published on 5th December 2006

The world will be treated to a spectacular sculpture of a whale christened “Mfalme wa Bahari” or “King of the Ocean” which will feature at  Nairobi's Sarit Centre before moving to Mombasa, London, Alaska, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Japan. "Mfalme" will then relocate to its permanent abode in London’s Museum of Natural History. The 10 meter life size whale was made by a reknowned sculptor Kioko Mwitiki, from plastic slippers (flip flops) washed ashore Kenya’s beaches and metal.

Whereas the $8000 worth “Mfalme” is intended for use by groups opposed to lifting the ban on commercial whale hunting that has been in place since 1986 and is due for review in May 2007, it is also a pointer to the shortsightedness of environmental activists keen on having the use of plastics banned globally. “Plastics can no longer be conveniently ignored,” says Jan Lunberg in War on Plastics. “The days of naïve trust and denial need to be put behind us, and a war on plastics declared now.”  

According to a research Selection, Design and Implementation of Economic Instruments in the Kenya’s Solid Waste Management Sector authored by Moses Ikiara and Clive Mutunga of Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) in 2005, at least two million plastic bags are handed out each year to people shopping at supermarkets and kiosks in Nairobi alone. The analysts point out that plastics have become an eyesore across the country, blocking gutters and drains, chocking farm and marine animals and polluting the soil. 

“This is not just a problem for (Kenya). Wastes are an increasing problem everywhere, particularly in developing countries,” says Klaus Toepfer of the UN.  

In 2002, Ireland imposed a 15 Euro cent levy on plastic bags provided by stores and shops. The measure is estimated to have reduced the use of plastic bags by 90 percent. Australia put a 10 percent charge while providing a reusable alternative and reported a 97 percent drop in plastic use. Rwanda has banned plastics less than 100 microns thick and backed this with public awareness campaigns. South Africa has banned plastic bags thinner than 30 microns and introduced a plastic levy that goes to a plastic bag recycling company. 

KIPPRA recommends a 7 point plan on plastic bags in Kenya which include a ban on the 30 micron or less bags and plastic levy on suppliers, with costs passed on to the consumer. 

Although today’s extreme dependence on plastics must be acknowledged, they should not be banned but converted to alternative income generating use. Their prevalence is a test to Africa’s intellectuals and entrepreneurs’ innovation. Resources have been known to be a menace before technology discovers their use. Sand used to be “useless” until the human mind figured out how to make silicon chips that power computers from it. Rocks are a bother in farms, but wait until a construction firm wants to put up skyscrapers or construct a road in the region. Old clothing has been shredded to form pillow cases, mattresses and beautiful mosaics.Kioko's sculpture agrees with Edmund Burke that “our foe is our friend.”

Many people may not be lucky to get a US$8000 grant to do such a feat but given a conducive environment with zero barriers to starting a business, nurturing our entrepreneurs, reduced taxation, assured security and supporting recycling efforts,  the plastic waste menace will be a thing of the past. Villagers from coastal towns have collected flops to make objects for sale ranging from window screens, mats, wall hangings, jewellery to toys. In Machakos district of Eastern Kenya, from recycled plastic, a local youth group is making fencing posts that resist the attack of ants prevalent in the area. Imposing more levies on plastics will kill creativity and deny people money that they would have otherwise used on other activities.  

Banning plastics is a sign that the human mind is not working. “People are amazed when they see what becomes of the plastics they recycle and how the products are useful in the garden,” explains Joyce Gagnon, a garden and landscape design expert. “Used plastic water bottles are being recycled into garden hoses, while plastic milk jugs and detergent bottles are being used in landscape timbers. You can extend your planting season by creating a temporary greenhouse over your raised beds by use of plastics,”she says. 

Where are thinking Africans?

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