As Kenya cracks second whip on plastic industry, activists remain optimistic

World Environment Day 2020 marked the beginning of a different routine for 35- year-old Ali Ibrahim who is the assistant chairman of the Bamburi beach management unit, a local unit of stakeholders in the fishing industry in Mombasa, Kenya.

Ever since he began fishing 15 years ago, Ibrahim has spent past world environment days collecting discarded plastics from the Jomo Kenyatta public beach, which is part of the Mombasa Marine Park and reserve.

But things are about to change. A presidential directive that came into effect on the same day has banned single-use plastics in protected areas. This will hopefully help ensure that Ali and his fellow fishermen do not find discarded plastics in their beach every now and then.

“I cannot begin to describe what this means for us as fishermen,” Ali says. “ We are used to scenarios where we find bits of plastic in fish bellies,” he says.

Ali has already experienced what it is like to work from a plastic-free beach after the Kenyan ministry of health closed down all beaches in an effort to discourage gatherings and limit the spread of COVID-19.

“When the ministry of health closed down beaches, some environmental activists conducted a cleaning exercise along the beach and since then we have not had cases of plastic littering” Ali adds.

However, the ban could help address a second problem Ali and his fellow fishermen have been facing; the reduction in their fish catches.

The Jomo Kenyatta Public Beach which is part of the Mombasa marine park and reserve. PHOTO JANET MURIKIRA

According to a 2019 report by the Centre For Environmental Law, the plastic industry is one of the highest emitters in the manufacturing sector.

“In 2019, the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants. At present rates, these greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to meet carbon emissions targets.” the report says.

Greenhouse gases have been blamed on the rising global temperatures whose ripple effect is the acceleration of coral bleaching, which often results in the death of the coral.

With reef-building corals holding the highest concentration of marine biodiversity, experts have already begun warning that the continued bleaching of corals will have an effect on the livelihoods of fishing communities mostly living in the tropics.

A report by William Cheung, a marine researcher who has written extensively on the impact of climate change on fisheries predicted a decline of up to 40% in seafood catch in areas along the tropics by 2055.

“Our estimates suggest that the high range greenhouse gas emission could result in a worldwide redistribution of maximum catch potential and the level of impacts is positively related to the emission level” the report indicates.

The recent ban has raised optimism among anti-climate change campaigners in Kenya who are using an earlier ban on secondary packaging plastic bags as a benchmark.

The ban which came into effect in September 2017 holds violators liable for paying fines that range from $300 to $40000.

According to Olivia Adhiambo, a climate change policy and advocacy expert at Tony Wild, a Kenyan based organization advocating for nature-based sustainability, the bans will have a gradual reduction on emissions linked to plastics both at manufacturing and disposal stages.

“Plastics also clog the soil and sea beds reducing their ability to act as carbon sinks. Since the ban on secondary packaging plastic bags came into effect, we have seen a sharp drop in supply due to a fall in demand.” Adhiambo says. “With the proper enforcement I hope that the second ban will trickle down to the manufacturing chain” she adds.

A man walking through the plastic waste ridden Mtopanga River in Mombasa county.

However, the ban that has worked to rid plastics bags that were once the primary packaging method used by retailers has paved the way for the entry of non-woven Polypropylene bags.

Past research has shown that these bags produce twice the amount of greenhouse emissions produced by their plastic counterparts, but they can be reused at least 10 times more than plastic bags.

Kenya has had her own attempt at banning the bags too.

Last year, Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) issued a March 30th 2019 ultimatum banning the use of such bags.

However, a court in the capital Nairobi suspended the ban pending the hearing and determination of a suit filed by a trade lobby group dubbed the Traders Association of Kenya.

This story is published in collaboration with One Earth.

Header photo by Janet Murikira.