Kenya’s plastic carrier bags’ ban took effect on 28th August 2017 amid accolades and applauds from local, county, national, and international fronts mainly comprising environmental enthusiasts. I, too, welcome the ban and hope that it is one of the small successes that we shall continue witnessing incrementally, as we work to #beatPollution and achieve a pollution-free planet. Notwithstanding, my thoughts shift to the other divide, which received the ban with equal measure of agitation, protest, and discontentment.
There is a huge number of industry players that are mainly opposed to the ban led by the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM). Sometimes last year, I sat in one of the ‘consultative’ meetings on the East Africa Legislative Assembly (EALA) on Polythene Materials’ Control. The discourse was nearly left to the dogs after clear divisions and hard stands carried the day. Although Kenya managed to stall the bill on grounds of economic witch-hunt (mainly job loss), the Bill eventually passed albeit with negligible implications on implementation in the Kenyan context. Months later, the plastic carrier bags’ ban is here… and this time, to stay and be implemented locally; directly.
The contentions between pro-environment and pro-economic divides in the quest for sustainability. Borrowing from Scott Campbell’s (2013) Planner’s Triangle on sustainability in urban planning, various planners exhibit three priorities and conflicts i.e. economic, environmental, and social apices. These priorities and conflicts are at play in the case of the #PlasticBanKe. I argue that the dominance of the environmental and economic priorities by either faction could very well be misleading, unsustainable, and inadequate to address the plastics’ menace by missing the equity and social justice dimension of sustainability.
Economic arguments have been the principle citations by the KAM in their opposition of the ban. Whereas the issues raised by KAM seem to be about the good of the society, which would correspond to the equity and social justice apex of Campbell’s Planner’s Triangle, the economic apex dominates their argument and clouds any intention of social good in their case in the end. The jobs that the KAM argues will be lost could very well imply creation of more, localised economic activity for alternative carrier bags, as the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the Ministry of Environment has argued and demonstrated. In all honesty, I certainly do not expect that the “over 176 plastic manufacturing companies in Kenya which directly employ 2.89% of all Kenyan employees and indirectly employ over 60,000 people” (KAM, 2017) will shut down at all. What when the KAM continues to produce other forms of plastics and packaging for sweets, toilet paper et al?
Back to the Planner’s Triangle, I figure that, both pro-economic and pro-environment commentators could fall victim of “the “jobs versus environment” dichotomy”, which Campbell (2013) criticizes for missing the social justice issue. On the one-hand, KAM and other pro-economic, pro-job, and anti-plastic-ban only seem to use the equity and social lens as a justifier and not a principal. To this extent, I find that the opponents and proponents of the plastic carrier bags’ ban are taking hard lines on the environmental and economic dimensions depending on allegiance and/or orientation. On the other hand, proponents of the ban led by the Ministry of Environment and environmental civil society also under-emphasize the equity and social justice dimension of the ban. While the engineering of the ban is undoubtedly informed by thoughts of sustainable environmental development, it would do no harm digressing to the social dimension.
For example, there is need to emphasize that the ban is on plastic carrier bags and not all plastics; it would be a demonstration of honesty and good faith from both proponents and opponents of the ban. Overlooking the fundamental rationale by each side of the debate and reaching out to the social and equity justice gains now that the ban is already effective will convince the citizenry to work along. While most citizens support the ban, confusion looms over what next and some still linger on using the plastic carrier bags in secrets. Secondly, it would be great to see KAM through its Centre for Energy Efficiency and Conservation acknowledge the ills of the carrier bags and support the path to alternatives. Thirdly, the Ministry of Environment and NEMA should reach out to KAM to explore the potentials of shifting production of plastic packaging materials for manufacturers at minimal costs. Environmental and economic “planners will not always be able, on their own, to represent and balance social, economic and environmental interests simultaneously”, says Campbell (2013). After all, we are all committed to SDG17, aren’t we!?
Campbell, S. C. (2013). Sustainable development and social justice: Conflicting urgencies and the search for common ground in urban and regional planning. Michigan Journal of Sustainability, 1 (Fall). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/mjs.12333712.0001.007
East African Legislative Assembly (EALA). (2017). EALA passes Bill on polythene materials control. Retrieved from http://www.eala.org/media/view/eala-passes-bill-on-polythene-materials-control
The East African. (2016, November 2016). Opposition from Kenya stalls EALA plastics ban Bill. Retrieved from http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/Kenya-opposition-stall-plastics-ban-Bill-in-EALA/2558-3464774-6pkgnc/index.html
The Citizen (2017, June 2). EALA bill on plastic bags gets the thumps-up across region. Retrieved from http://www.thecitizen.co.tz/News/Eala-bill-on-plastic-bags-gets-the-thumps-up-across-region/1840340-3996210-k9jq2l/index.html