COVID-19 brings out the urgent need for proper waste management systems, especially single-use plastic.
While some parts of the world are slowly beginning to lift strict lockdown measures after COVID-19 brought life to a grinding halt, Kenya is still facing a growing threat from the rising number of new cases.
The healthcare system is under tremendous pressure, and the economic meltdown is no longer an unfathomable outcome. Yet, the pandemic continues to pose another monstrous challenge, Plastic! Which has turned out to be one of the most used materials in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) used during the coronavirus crisis, including disposable gloves, sanitizers and handwash plastic bottles?
Despite there being brilliant initiatives by businesses to provide PPEs for customers and members of the community, one thing that is lacking is enough sensitization of the public to dispose of the PPEs properly.
Because what impact will we have if we wash our hands and sanitize while our streets, gutters, and cities are full of waste? If our sewers are clogged by irresponsibly disposed of plastics? Shall we not be fighting one viral pandemic while creating another pollution contagion?
Our reliance on plastic has always been on the high, with production expected to double over the next 20 years; most of which will be single-use packaging material.
In Nairobi alone, approximately 3,000 metric tons or 0.64 kg per capita of municipal waste occur daily from residential areas, industry and other private companies as well as public institutions; with plastic fractions accounting for 9% – 15% according to the UN-Habitat.
Given our often lack of conscience when disposing of plastics into the ecosystem, our environment faces greater danger post-COVID-19, than it did before the pandemic.
Only a meagre 9% of plastics ever produced has been recycled
Currently, only about 9% of plastics ever produced has been recycled, while about 12% has been incinerated. Sadly, the rest 79% of plastic waste sits in landfills. When not properly disposed of, plastic often finds its way into the food chains and eventually in human bodies, thus causing not only negative environmental but also health impacts.
It’s therefore manifest just how apt and imperative the ban on single-use plastics in Kenya is.
However, concerns arise on the limitations imposed on waste services by the Coronavirus crisis.
In Kenya, this challenge is exacerbated by lack of an effective waste management infrastructure, which could otherwise bolster the government’s efforts on implementing the ban, effective 5th June 2020 in all protected areas, including National Parks, beaches, forests and conservation areas.
Last year, for instance, to encourage the recycling of the plastic waste in the country, the government put in place tax measures including exemption from VAT on all services offered to plastic recycling plants; as well as the reduction of corporate tax to 15% for investors operating a plastic recycling plant for the first five years.
Unfortunately, following the Covid-19 outbreak, the corporate tax rate for plastic recycling companies went back up by 10%, to reach 25%. 21 days to the start on the single-use plastic ban, optimism was restored, as treasury allocated Sh20 million towards the removal of plastics in the country’s protected areas, in the financial year starting July 1.
Why is the ban on single-use plastics a judicious move?
In 2017, when Kenya embarked on a journey towards a plastic-free country, ban on the use, manufacture, and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging was effected through the Ministry of Environment.
Although the move was at first met by antagonism from a fraction of Kenyans especially small business owners who highly relied on plastic carrier bags, today, the success of the ban is recorded at over 80%.
It’s understandable why some may feel sceptic about the sustainability of the ban on single-use plastics amid a global pandemic.
A few days ago, in a discussion about the ban with a group of environmentalists, someone questioned Kenya’s preparedness given that plastic production is a source of income for many Kenyans.
Quoting him he said, “We can’t run away from the fact that we have a plastic pollution problem in the country, yet we also can’t deny anyone their economic rights.” He made a sensible point that got me thinking where we stand as a country.
But we must acknowledge that while plastic products are quite functional, one of the key aspects that make them problematic in the environment is their durability under normal biophysical conditions. This means that plastic does not decompose in nature.
Furthermore, the draft Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations have come at the right time; to provide room for the establishment of a Producer Responsible Organization (PRO) per waste stream.
This means that producers have the responsibility of the product that is introduced to the market beyond its use by the consumer. Producers will also have to factor the environmental cost of its products on the pricing model.
PETCO is one such an organization that was established to take care of collection and recycling on PET bottles on behalf of the subscribed members.
The EPR scheme is a model that seeks to help businesses rethink their use and re-use of resources while at the same time ensuring job creation in the recycling value chain. The end game? To solve the problem of waste management more so on the management of plastic that is introduced to the environment as a product.
With no end to the Covid-19 pandemic insight, organizations and businesses will require fast adoption of alternatives to single-use plastics ; especially those in the hospitality, tourism and MICE industries. This is the time to act while business is at a standstill, in preparation for when the markets finally open for travel.
From where we stand, the success of this ban will be made possible by a systems-level approach between the government and the private sector, supporting each other to curb the ballooning negative impacts of plastics on our environment.
It is not certain whether Kenya’s recycling and waste management sector would be able to efficiently handle massive volumes of post-pandemic plastic.
What is certain is that we have a collective responsibility to abide by the single-use plastic bag, which is a promising step towards the development of a circular economy and a cleaner, more habitable environment post-COVID-19.