Wednesday, March 9, 2005
They are cheap, useful, and very plentiful, and that is exactly the problem, according to researchers. A report issued on Feb. 23 by a cadre of environment and economics researchers suggested that Kenya should ban the common plastic bag that one gets at the checkout counter of grocery stores, and place a levy on other plastic bags, all to combat the country’s environmental problems stemming from the bags’ popularity.
The new report was a result of work by Kenyan government, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis. It evaluated the state of waste management in the country with particular attention to plastic bag pollution, and recommended that bags less than 30 microns in thickness be banned, a levy be placed on suppliers of thicker bags, and a number of programs be developed to encourage people in the country to not litter, but to recycle and use alternative or reusable bags for their shopping needs instead.
On one hand, the bags are often better than the alternatives, and are getting better. The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) in the United States quotes the University of Arizona Garbage Project’s report that plastics are getting more compact and take up less space in landfills. Plastic bags compare favorably with paper bags which require more energy to produce, generate more waste and burn less cleanly, according to the SPI.
But on the other hand, the bags have gotten so thin as to be barely reusable and recyclable: grocers will frequently double-bag heavy produce, and the bag weighs so little that a great number of bags have to be collected to create an effectively recycled mass of plastic. The light-weight bags are easily picked up by wind, and end up escaping open trash bins and refuse heaps. By littering the landscape, plastic bags become a choking hazard for cattle; in the sea they hurt marine mammals. In Bangladesh, plastic bags were banned after they were blamed for blocking storm drains and causing flooding. Even if they do enter the landfill successfully, the bags take up to 1000 years to bio-degrade.
Plastic bags in Kenya are an especially acute problem. According to the report, waste management in the country isn’t very effective, due partially to a lack of municipal trash pickup in squatter settlements and satellite towns outside the cities’ boundaries. Less than 25% of the solid waste generated daily gets processed by a combination of public and private efforts.
Sometimes plastic bag litter can have even further consequences. According to 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Kenyan Professor Wangari Mathaai, discarded bags fill up with rainwater and become perfect breeding grounds for malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Malaria is Africa’s most deadly infectious disease in children, and over 50% of all hospital visits in some areas are malaria-related. Social costs of plastic litter add up as well: countries lacking comprehensive waste management often sprout underground economies of ragpickers — typically children who wander refuse heaps and collect potentially recyclable materials for sale to shady businessmen operating from official dump sites. The ragpickers in developing countries struggle with plastic bags, preferring thicker materials that require fewer items to be picked up for the same weight.
The problem with bags is that they are victims of their own success: they are so very cheap to manufacture that, at a cost of US$0.01 per bag, retailers often absorb the price of bags into the price of merchandise they sell. This makes the bag appear free to the consumers, who in turn do not value it, and toss the bag away with little reuse. In a vicious circle, the low cost of the bags drives down the amount of material used to manufacture them, creating bags that are flimsy and not easy to reuse.
The report places an emphasis on learning from the successes and failures of other countries’ approaches to regulating the plastics industry. Several European countries introduced legislation that deals with plastic bags. In Ireland, a surcharge on plastic bags decreased their use by 90%. A similar move in Denmark saw the bag use drop by 66%. Australia and New Zealand have also considered or implemented some plastics regulation legislation. South Africa’s plastic bag problem reached a climax in 2003 — plastic bags littered the street to such an extent that they earned the nickname “national flower”. The country introduced regulations similar to those proposed in Kenya, and within less than a year a reduction in plastic litter was already apparent, according to the report.
The report also recognizes that policies require tradeoffs, and incorporates this into their recommendations. For example, the suggested policy of banning thin bags in favor of thicker ones seems counterintuitive: after all, the thicker ones contain more material that is the cause of the pollution. Furthermore, a ban on thin bags will decimate the industry producing those bags, likely resulting in job losses for Kenyans, as was the case in South Africa when that country introduced similar legislation. However the report notes that this will be offset by increases in production of alternative bags, or in the recycling industry.
The manufacture of plastic bags is a sizable industry. In the United States alone the film, sheet, and bag portion of the plastics industry produces more than $26 billion in sales in one year. The sheer number of plastic bags used are staggering, too: in Hong Kong more than a quarter of a billion bags get used every year, in San Francisco over 50 million, and almost 300 million in Kenya. The SPI — the parent organization of the Film and Bag Federation — claims that more than 80% of consumers reuse plastic bags as trash can liners or for similar purposes, but that’s misleading even when restricted to the United States, as the number of bags used is still very high on a per-capita basis. According to the Worldwatch Institute, an independent environmental organization, Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags every year, with only 0.6% of the bags being recycled.
The bag manufacturer association in the United States — the Film and Bag Federation — appears aware of environmental issues surrounding their products. The Federation’s web site explores some environmental concerns, mainly recycling and reuse. But the issue of plastic bag overuse or excessive littering in developing countries is not addressed directly on their site.
Donna Dempsey, the Executive Director of the Film and Bag Federation, said in an email to a Wikinews reporter that “there are better ways in Kenya and other places to reduce the amount of bags used, such as re-educating the grocery bag checker not to double bag products and on the amount of groceries one bag is made to carry”. She said that members of the association — companies in the United States and Canada — are investing millions of dollars into “bag to bag” recycling programs, which use material from recycled plastic bags to create new plastic bags, as well as programs that buy back recycled bags and turn them into plastic decking.
The government of Kenya has signaled that they support solutions to problems caused by plastic waste. At the opening speech of the UNEP Governing Council/Ministerial Environment Forum on Feb. 21, 2005, Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki said: “In our major cities, plastic bags are used in large quantities at the household level. However, these bags are not disposed of in ways that ensure a clean environment. My country welcomes initiatives to address this problem.”
Prof. Wangari Maathai, who is the country’s deputy environment minister, supports the effort from her official position. She promotes the 4-Rs — Reduce, Recycle, Re-use, Repair — and encourages the use of locally-made cotton or sisal bags. Yet as the authors of the report write policy action must be fairly swift to be effective, so should the government commit to the report authors’ recommendations it will have to quickly match political action with their words of support.
Plastic bag pollution has been a contentious issue with the people of Kenya for a number of years. Six years ago, the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya organized a campaign march to urge the government to regulate the bag producers. But not everyone is optimistic about the plans to regulate plastic bags. Dave Jones from Nairobi believes that the way to control pollution is to have clear policies on land ownership: “No single land owner would allow his property to be polluted by others” he writes in a letter to Kenya’s daily newspaper, the Daily Nation. In South Africa after the bag regulations were implemented negative reactions included concerns that the poor already re-used the flimsy bags as source materials in producing home-made items such as hats or purses — occupations made impossible by the ban.