HomeNewsPlasticThe Myth That Is Plastic Waste Recycling in Kenya

The Myth That Is Plastic Waste Recycling in Kenya

One aspect of modern Kenyan urban living that takes getting used to is the regular, well-timed garbage collection days. Miss your day and you will have to keep the trash a week longer awaiting the next collection date when the beaten-up lorries full of garbage labor through city estates in mid-morning collecting the waste produced by city dwellers.

Should you find yourself in the central business district at around midnight, you may run into these rickety trucks collecting food waste from city restaurants, discarded cartons from offices, and empty drink cans from the city’s clubs that they ferry to the few landfills scattered around the city.

The barely roadworthy trucks are part of the more than 205 lorries working at the city’s many collection points in a hectic bid to keep Nairobi County hygienic. So profitable is the waste collection business that private contractors and cartels have infiltrated the trade.

In Nairobi alone, the county’s garbage collection service is complemented by nearly 150 private sector waste operators who also serve this city of over 4 million residents. Private investments have done a lot but not nearly enough to address the garbage crisis that plagues Kenya’s towns and cities.

Kenya’s urban households produce the bulk of the country’s solid waste, including a major share of the estimated 24 million plastic bags that are used and discarded every month. A significant portion of the plastic waste ends up in dumpsites alongside scrap metal, paper materials, glassware, and medical and toxic waste. Plastic waste constitutes a significant portion of this trash and poses the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 73 percent of all plastic waste generated in Kenya goes uncollected. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) reports that between 2 and 8 percent of the plastic waste is recycled while the rest is disposed of at dumpsites such as Dandora and Ruai in Nairobi, Kachok in Kisumu, and Kibarani at the coast. In Mombasa alone, some 3.7 kilograms of per capita plastic waste end up in the ocean, contributing to the 1,300 billion pieces of plastic that find their way into the Indian Ocean every year. Experts estimate that there will be more plastic than fish species in all the oceans globally by 2025.

Kenya banned plastic carrier bags in 2017, at the same time that the United Nations Environment Programme was launching the Clean Seas campaign to reduce marine litter. From June 2020, visitors entering game reserves, forests, beaches, protected areas and conservancies are no longer allowed to carry plastic water bottles, cups, cutlery, plates, drinking straws, and packaging within the protected areas.

On the production end, there are industry-led plastics initiatives such as the Kenya Plastic Action Plan and the creation of the Kenya Extended Producer Responsibility Organization (KEPRO), whose mandate is to ensure that plastics are mapped, ferried, sorted, and where possible, put back into circulation. Given the low garbage collection rates and even lower sorting rates, recycling has been misleadingly touted as the key to managing plastic waste.

For context, the cumulative global plastic waste produced since 1950 is estimated at 8.3 billion tonnes — half of which was produced in the last 13 years alone — at an average of 300 million tonnes annually.

In Kenya recycling doesn’t work

Recycling has its limitations. Despite being cited as a major solution to the problem of plastic waste, a solution that has been taken up by 34 of the 54 African states, numerous reports have proven that it costs more to recycle than to dispose of the waste. That of course begs the question: costlier for whom?

While disposing of plastic is cheaper than recycling, the long-term ecological cost to Kenyans living close to landfills and downstream is probably much higher. Kenyan plastic manufacturers are in the business for profit and, for the most part, recycling does not offer them value for money.

According to Kenya’s PET plastic industry’s joint self-regulation effort, once plastic waste enters the recycling conveyer, it is assembled and packed into bales that are sold as industrial goods and sent to the dozens of recycling plants around the country to be sorted by quality, industrial variety, texture, and color. The waste is then shredded, sanitized, melted down, and molded into smaller, smoother plastic pellets.

These pellets, known as nurdles, are bought and once again melted down and fashioned into other plastic products, ready for reuse by industries. This form of recycling is the optimal pathway for plastic waste, but it rarely is feasible. Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.

To put it in context, less than 45 percent of Nairobi’s overall waste is recycled, most of it undergoing what is referred to as down-cycling, open recycling, or cascaded recycling.

Cascaded recycling refers to the process of using recycled plastic waste to make an item of a lower quality than the original product. These items typically have reduced recycling potential, which destines them for the landfill after use. Models of cascaded recycling in Kenya’s informal settlements, therefore, turn the triangular recycling loop into a one-way direction to an incinerator or landfill.

Global research led by plastics expert Dr. Roland Geyer claims that only 9 percent of all the plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Kenya’s cascaded recycling rates are harder to quantify but an authoritative plastics report states that only 14 percent of global plastic packaging waste was collected for recycling in 2013. Only 8 percent of that amount was down-cycled, of which 4 percent atrophied during the process while only 2 percent was recycled into a product of equal or higher value.

Even locally, recycling plastic is a costly process, and sorting it, many experts assert, is unfeasible, which means that there is no way out when dealing with plastic waste other than banning the production and use of plastics.

Kenya and the global dumping of plastic waste

The non-feasibility of recycling plastic waste has been an open secret among plastics industry insiders since as far back as the 1970s. As early as 1973, senior executives of plastics multinationals had already ruled out plastic waste recycling on a large scale. Instead, these multinationals paid for misleading big-budget advertisements extolling the virtues of plastic products and lying about the ease with which plastics could be recycled for other uses, while also placing the responsibility of recycling or disposing of plastic waste on the end-user. However, the mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.

Old industry memos and library archives show that as far back as the mid-1980s Kenyan scholars like Kamau Hezron Mwangi had begun to call for a serious look into the efficacy of recycling while, in the mid-1990s, researcher Dr. J.N. Muthotho and his team demanded greater research across specific plastic products supply chains. The growing concerns linked to plastic products, their quality, disposability, and the economics of the industry paint an image of an industry that has always been well aware of the problems caused by plastic waste but has lacked the motivation to address the issue. In an increasingly consumerist society, plastic has continued to be affordable, readily available, cheap, convenient, and yet very difficult to dispose of.

Ending Kenya’s relationship with plastic

A radical behavioral shift by producers, packaging firms, and end-users is required in order to rid the Kenyan environment of plastic pollution. The ban on plastic carrier bags has had an estimated 80 percent efficacy rate. Industry insiders including manufacturers and distributors now say that the ban should be extended to disposable tableware, plastic straws, plates, and cutlery.

This, the stakeholders say, will reduce the amount of single-use plastic in landfills, reduce waste, minimize animal deaths, improve human safety, and save our water systems. However, a concerted effort is needed to ban single-use plastic bottles, plastic straws, and plastic packaging and replace them with organic, biodegradable plastic (BDP) alternatives.

Most BDP products in the Kenyan market are made of thermoplastic starch that uses a polyester similar in material strength to the plastic. Currently, there is only one manufacturer in the country. However, researchers are coming closer to finding organic alternatives to plastics.

Reimagining a post-plastic country

In Kenya, the stakeholders have to begin to reimagine new models of ridding the country of plastic waste in the everyday life and habits of Kenyan citizens. Nairobi and its environs alone is estimated to produce between 2,400 and 3,000 tonnes of general waste every single day, an estimated 20 percent of which is plastic waste.

“People don’t want to stop using plastic. It is cheap and easy to use so I understand why people like [it]”, says Kinuthia, an unlicensed collector in Uthiru.

A consumer culture that creates an ever-increasing demand and use of plastic products ought to be overhauled, reimagined, and refashioned.

Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological, and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon. As far back as the late 1980s, World Bank President Barber Conable recognized that the ecological cost of economic production has to be accounted for. “Current calculations ignore the degradation of the natural-resource base and view the sales of nonrenewable resources entirely as income . . . A better way must be found.” he wrote.

Kenya’s plastic producers and importers have to begin to consider how to shift society away from plastic products and integrate alternatives into the marketplace. Kenyans have the opportunity to have a national conversation around local plastic producers and importers if we are to work effectively towards phasing out all plastic products sold in the market.

With imports valued at an estimated US$883 million, Kenya’s plastics sector has a critical duty to phase out plastic products so as to, at the very least, ensure that the end-user does not have to choose between affordability, disability, and sustainability of the packaging when making a purchasing decision.

The plastic waste crisis calls for Kenyans to design products with their life cycle and their end in mind at the outset. Therefore, designing products with their utility and disposal in mind is critical. For example, utilizing snap-together parts in appliances minimizes the use of screws, making the end product easier to disassemble, recover, and recycle at the end. This evolution in design proactively shapes the journey of a product in order to ensure that as much material as possible is recycled back into the production conveyor.

On 24 March 2021, Kenya’s Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJD) held a consultative forum with 24 grassroots Civil Society Organisations in the waste management sector with support from Break Free From Plastic. The members used the existing legislative framework that bans single-use plastic carrier bags in the country to launch the CSOs for Zero Plastics in Kenya network that integrates the input of stakeholders in the affected sectors. Still, this push by CSOs towards a wider ban seems to have created a policy tension between the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and multinationals that rely on plastic products for packaging.

In 2018, NEMA tried to extend the ban on plastic carrier bags to single-use plastic containers such as bottles made of PET. However, the companies involved in the production of PET products instead proposed a self-regulated, industry-led solution under PETCO.

Despite NEMA’s pledge in 2018 to make PETCO membership mandatory for all plastic industry players, its membership remains voluntary. This lapse has slowed the acceptance of membership by stakeholders and by industry players and minimized compliance. Kenya currently has eight PET converters, but only one of them is a PETCO member. Moreover, an estimated 900 bottling plants use PET containers but only eight (1 percent) are members of PETCO.

The future of a post-plastic Kenya requires consolidation of existing industry efforts, ramping up scientific research on alternatives, a shift in consumer behavior, and robust incremental policies in enforcing the bans and restrictions. Only then can Kenya secure its ecology, manage the diverse interests of the stakeholders involved and still manage its ecological health with posterity in mind.

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