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  • Writer's pictureCecilia Wandiga

Kenya Sustainable Cities - Know Your Plastics, Save Your Environment

The single use plastic ban in Kenya has taught us we are capable of adjusting our behavior.  

Some may feel the ban is draconian but the real question is: what was the most effective means of stopping what we were doing in the shortest time possible?

The problem with saying more time is needed is that days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, months turn into years and years turn into decades, i.e. nothing gets done. Now that action in the right direction has been initiated, we can revisit the problem and the opportunities for additional improvement.

The Problem:

A recent study led by Christian Schmidt, a researcher at the UFZ, identified ten rivers that account for 88-95% of the plastic that's channeled into the oceans. Two are in Africa, the Nile and Niger, and the remaining eight are in Asia: the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Yangtze, Hai He, Pearl, Mekong, and Amur.

Researchers with the UFZ estimate that halving the plastic pollution in rivers would reduce the amount channeled into the ocean by as much as 45%. To achieve that reduction in waste, improvement needs to be made in waste management and public awareness.

Opportunities for additional improvement: 

For small businesses the change in operational costs could be detrimental. Policies such as this are likely to be most challenging amongst the poor due to a loss of jobs for which the manufacturing sector employs nearly 60,000 people.

Over the course of ten years Kenya had three attempts at implementing a plastic bag ban. Prior to Kenya's ban Rwanda had a similar ban in place. Unlike its neighbouring states Rwanda's streets are free from the litter of plastic bags and its capital Kigali is the cleanest in all of Africa.

However despite these successes there have been drawbacks in the absence of plastic bags, a black market has emerged. At the border customs officers search for the possession of plastic bags, of which they note women are particularly challenging to search.

The Bridge to Improvement:

1. Biodegradable plastics can be formulated over time and with investment capital. 

2. Affordable alternatives to existing plastics can be addressed by developing alternative behaviors. We used plastics because they were convenient. Garbage bag liners made it easy to throw away trash but the reality is that the better solution is to reduce the amount of trash we have in the first place. If we separate our waste so that there is less trash and more reusable material, we really don't need trash bags once we get to zero waste. Plastic bags in lieu of toilets were affordable but the real issue we need to address is safe and accessible sanitation systems in informal settlements. Keeping products dry when we travel is a signal that we need better container designs. In short, what affordable and disposable plastics were really doing is making it easier for us to ignore all the systemic bad designs in our daily lives. Solving the plastics problem goes beyond biodegradable plastic. Solving the plastic problem requires a redesign of how we do things to ensure we do not accumulate waste while still enjoying convenience. 

3. Proactive behaviour is more cost effective than waiting for legislation. We can wait until another ban forces us to change our behaviour or we can start addressing the necessary changes by showing our own initiative.  

One example of industry initiative is the self former Association of Plastic Recyclers. APR is a trade group made up of companies that recycle plastic goods. In addition to creating an exchange to facilitate the interaction between buyers and sellers, they have created a recycling flow chart and design guidelines that improve the ease of plastic reuse.

Another industry example is Webstaurant store, an only restaurant supply company that also serves individual customers. As part of their service offering, they have developed an infographic to guide the public on plastic recycling codes, environmental risks and recycling uses. The infographic is a perfect example of what happens when we educate ourselves and focus on using our creativity to solve challenges and support each other towards improving solutions.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition has innovation awards.

The bigger question is: are we only driven to solve problems if there is a competition or a prize? 

Instead of just having a resin code for recycling we can develop locally appropriate How2Recycle labels that remind everyone of alternative uses. We can make attractive waste separator bins out of used metal or waste wood found at construction disposal sites.

In order for plastics to be an asset instead of a detriment, we need to separate out the different types of plastics and develop business models around the circular economic value of each category of plastic. Here is an article to get activities started. 

Designing Business Solutions for Plastic Waste Management to Enhance Circular Transitions in Kenya

According to the employed circular evaluation methodology (CEV—Circular Economic Value), the circularity level in Kenya’s plastic material flow stands on a rather low stage with 32.72%. This result outlines the linear deficiencies of the plastic waste management system and urges the prevention of further material leakage (such as energy use). Through the Business Model Canvas (BMC) approach this study offers a holistic business solution which can improve the system’s sustainability.

As a research institute, CSTI does not run your business for you or develop your business model but we do save you time by finding the information that is pertinent to the problem you are facing. 

There is plenty of work for everyone to do and a myriad of solutions to be developed. Let us focus on making all solutions effective! 

Call to action: Explore your world...what alternative products can you develop by re-using plastics coded 1, 2 or 5?

Here is a DIY plastic recycling machine prototype to get you started

Images Courtesy of 

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