Changing mindsets around plastic bags in Kenya

Until recently, the use of plastic bags was very common in Kenya. Whenever we went shopping, we knew our purchases would be wrapped nicely in plastic. Unfortunately, the bags were dumped everywhere after use, where they clogged our sewage and drainage systems and filled our rivers. Those who tried to clean them up usually burnt them which only further polluted the atmosphere.

Since the plastic bag ban, people have been using other types of bags, containers and even buckets for their shopping at the market. Photo: Will Boase

When the Kenyan government first attempted to ban plastic bags in 2007 it was not successful. Environmental groups continued to lobby the government until a ban was announced in August 2017. Manufacturers, importers and the general public were given six months to find alternative packaging. Those who failed to comply faced stiff penalties of up to four years’ imprisonment or fines of USD 40,000. 

Mixed responses 

At first there was a mixed reaction from the public. Environmental campaigners and people who understood the problems of plastic bags were extremely happy. The rest of the population was a bit confused. Many of them were already on strained budgets and now had to dig deeper into their pockets to purchase alternatives to the previously free or cheap plastic bags. 

There was a strong negative reaction from the manufacturers and retailers who produced and sold the bags. They argued that the jobs and livelihoods of their workforce would be threatened by the closure of the plastic bag manufacturers. 

For many others, the big question was: What are the alternatives and how expensive will they be? Thankfully, as it's said, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. Some people seized the economic opportunity to innovate and create reusable bags. Soon other options such as cloth, canvas, paper and sisal bags appeared on the market. The disadvantage was that these were more expensive.

‘From the start, the big question was: What are the alternatives? Thankfully, people were very creative.’

Sarah Onduko

Embracing change

Now, Kenyans have embraced the ban and mindsets are changing. It is encouraging to see people going to the supermarket with their own shopping bags or buying reusable bags. The ban has also increased the use of locally-made baskets. 

I wish this ban had come into force many years ago. I appreciate seeing our cities and homes becoming free from plastic litter. As citizens, we all need to help implement the ban. I hope one day to see people using reusable bottles for water too, instead of disposable ones! 

Discussion questions 

  • What problems are caused by plastic bags in our country? 
  • What actions could be taken to reduce the number of plastic bags produced and used? 
  • What would be the negative effects of such actions? 
  • Which type of action would be most useful and have the fewest drawbacks? 
  • How can we challenge our government to take action to reduce the use of plastic bags? 

You can read about how Rwandans responded to a country-wide plastic bag ban in Footsteps 107 which explores issues around waste.

Sarah Onduko
Sarah Onduko is Tearfund’s Social Accountability Officer based in Kenya. Email: sarah.onduko@tearfund.org