Resistive traders risk arrest as NEMA buttresses plastic bags ban

The fight against environmental destruction belongs to everyone, and measures to curb the destruction should be embraced by all.

Over five years later after the ban of single-use polythene bags, Kenyans still smuggle them and use them in retail shops and small businesses. NEMA is currently strengthening the ban in order to protect the environment. PHOTO/Courtesy.
Over five years later after the ban of single-use polythene bags, Kenyans still smuggle them and use them in retail shops and small businesses. NEMA is currently strengthening the ban in order to protect the environment. PHOTO/Courtesy.

The use of plastic bags was outlawed in Kenya in August 2017, which was hailed as the country’s most significant environmental conservation initiative. 

However, in 2023, almost six years later, crackdowns are still looming practically in every Kenyan town as plastic bag dealers continue to face increased crackdowns. 

According to reports, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the Ministry of Environment were compelled to impose a ban on these types of polythene due to increased environmental pollution and the clogging of drainage systems.

Tens of millions of single-use plastic bags are disposed of annually.

Almost 50% of the cattle near urban centers had plastic bags in their stomachs. 

This also led to increased clogging of the drainage systems in different parts of the country, causing floods during the rainy seasons.

Kenya is past half a decade now since the ban was implemented. However, traders are still being arrested in possession of this “illegal good,” arousing questions about how they are illegally getting into the country.

Since the ban, allegations are that the bags get smuggled through the porous borders of Uganda and Somalia.

Sachen Gudka, the former Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) Chair (2018/19), while dealing with the smugglers, commented about the ordeal.

“There is a high probability for illicit products to enter the Kenyan market due to our porous borders and the country–specific policy decision on plastic bags that wasn’t adopted at the regional level. Illicit trade is a huge challenge in the country,“ he told the BBC.

Large companies like supermarkets and wholesalers no longer use single-use plastic bags, but small-scale sellers continue to use them illegally. 

Many of these vendors continue to sell their goods in smaller, clear polythene bags and are well-known in the neighborhood markets.

According to Titus Simiyu, the Acting Deputy Director field operations for NEMA, the use of the polythene bags that have been outlawed is slowly making its way onto store shelves. 

A trader arrested in Busia over polythene bag possession recently. PHOTO/Courtesy.
A Busia-based trader arrested recently in possession of polythene bags. PHOTO/Courtesy.

Following the arrest of six traders in the neighboring Busia town recently, who were in possession of over 2000 pieces of polythene bags, Mr. Simiyu has now issued a warning that dealers apprehended will face prosecutions. The operation involved NEMA officials and Kenya Police from the Busia Police post.

“There will be no more warnings, no orders; we are going for prosecution in courts for the offenders using the banned plastic bags. EMCA stipulates heavy fine for offenders. Kenyans should stop using these bags,” he remarked.

The Environmental Management and Coordination (Amendment) Act (EMCA) was passed in 2015 as a law providing environmental protection in Kenya.

Thirty dealers have been detained after the crackdown that began at the beginning of this year, and their court cases are still pending. 

According to Mr. Simiyu, unauthorized use of plastic bags poses a severe threat to the environment, and their field operations aim to eradicate these violations. 

He added that as long as the prohibition is in effect, violators run the prospect of being fined two million Kenyan shillings or spending two years in jail, or maybe both.

In one of the operations, a suspect apprehended with a clear polythene bag inside a mini-market promised to uncover the conspiracy in exchange for being allowed to accompany other investigators to the manufacturer of the bags.

Ahero Market in Kisumu County, several kilometers away, is where another dealer was found with over 16,000 pieces of illegal polythene bags. 

And as a result, Mr. Simiyu and his colleagues have cracked down on local markets to ensure that they maintain the necessary level of cleanliness and safety.

A crackdown in Kenya should serve as a wake-up call because the East African Community (EAC), just a year after Kenya outlawed single-use polythene bags, unanimously tightened the prohibition to safeguard the environment.

Nearly seven years after the ban, smuggling this bag across the border poses a serious environmental hazard. 

Over three-quarters of Kenyans quit using plastic bags in 2018, according to a survey from the government. 

However, even the alternatives, which include a somewhat larger proportion of polythene, are not environmentally benign.

Keriako Tobiko, who was the Environment Minister at the time the ban was implemented, indicated that anyone found in possession of these unlawful papers in a procession would be subject to a KSh62,000 fine and a possible one-year jail sentence. 

In fact, this resulted in more than 300 Kenyans getting fined in 2018 and 18 others receiving eight-month sentences after admitting to using this bag in a Mombasa court. 

Not only was it challenging during the law’s adoption, but some of the offenders were also not punished because it was their first offense, and the nation was transitioning to the new normal simultaneously.

Call for joint national plan

Youth activists and environmental heroes are needed to educate local businesspeople about the costs associated with their preference for inexpensive and accessible items over pricey and enduring ones while the national crackdown continues. 

Beyond destroying water bodies and clogging drainage systems, single use polythene bags are a threat to animals, which eat them and develop digestive problems. PHOTO/Courtesy.
Beyond destroying water bodies and clogging drainage systems, single-use polythene bags threaten animals, which eat them and develop digestive problems. PHOTO/Courtesy.

Since they are readily available and less expensive than biodegradable carrying bags, most local traders prefer to use them.

But the fight against single-use plastic bags isn’t the only one; sachets and low-content plastic wrappers are also becoming increasingly popular.

As can be observed from the drainage systems in major urban areas, it is now certain that the prohibition of single-use polythene bags will remain in place and have a favorable influence on the environment. 

However, wrappers and products that use low-content polythene for packaging should also seek reformation. 

Due to the fact that plastic doesn’t dissolve, it constantly forms piles until all that is left is a heap, no matter how little of it is generated. 

This type of polythene is now responsible for dying the land and choking the oceans.

Going foward

We should restructure the entire market and, as much as we can, replace polythene bags with ecologically friendly products, even if they are more expensive, if we genuinely want to eliminate plastic pollution. 

Only in this way will we be able to safeguard future generations. 

YOU CAN ALSO READ: iElevate: Young women spearhead the quest for solutions to social problems

The NEMA and local law enforcement agencies are working assiduously to end the use of polythene bags. 

Still, additional policies should be implemented to provide education and awareness because knowledge is just as significant as legislation.

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Ms. Loise is a Communication Specialist with a bachelor's degree in Publishing and Media Science from Moi University, Kenya. She is a dedicated web developer and a climate change and environment writer. She also owns diverse skills in social media marketing. Her contact: loiselenser@gmail.com

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