On 14 March 2017, Kenya abruptly banned plastic bags. The ban was to take effect six months from the date of the gazette notice announced by Kenya’s cabinet secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, Judi W. Wakuhungu. The gazette notice was brief, barely eight lines; as with most official communication from the Kenyan state, it stated what was not permitted, without providing low- and no-cost options.
Before the ban, plastic bags were ubiquitous, used to carry everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to cooked food. The plastic bag acquired in one store was used multiple times: to share extra potatoes or avocados with friends and neighbors; to carry official documents, especially for those without the means—or desire—to carry briefcases; to get items from the local kiosk; as a modified grow bag to plant vegetables; and to hold household chemicals. Most everyone I know kept a stash of plastic bags, and those bags were inevitably handy when friends and family visited. Kenyans reused plastic bags.
The ban created political and ideological divisions among those of us who want to protect the earth. It was clear that something needed to be done about the accumulation of plastic paper in our sewer systems, waterways, landfills, and public spaces; from that perspective, banning the ubiquitous plastic bags made sense. But plastic bags were ubiquitous because they were low- and no-cost; if the price was built into the goods you bought, it was negligible. If you weren’t getting a free bag, what would you carry your goods in?
We supported the plastic ban in principle, but we wanted it to be practical. A practical ban might have followed the reduce-reuse, recycle model: reducing stocks among wholesalers and retailers; giving wananchi a grace period of a few years to reuse what they already had while preparing adequate, accessible facilities to recycle the plastic bags. A practical ban might have considered that only those with resources have no problem buying new bags, whether they are made of khanga or sisal or woven leaves or recycled plastic; for Kenyans with means, an extra 30-60 shillings to get an approved bag at a supermarket is irritating, but affordable. But it’s impractical to buy a packet of milk and a loaf of bread for 100 shillings and then to buy a bag for 30-60 shillings.
One popular model of eco-conservation emphasizes the choices we make. Buy reusable bottles instead of disposable plastic bottles; take fewer or no flights to reduce your carbon footprint; use a composting toilet; if it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down; buy local; repurpose; grow your own food; barter food and other goods with neighbors. The overall message is that small, everyday decisions make a difference.
Skeptics point out that most pollution happens on an industrial scale. Per the wisdom of the Twitter streets, 100 companies are responsible for more environmental damage than most humans. I am too lazy to verify this information, though it sounds right. Every critique of BIG something—BIG tobacco, BIG oil, BIG sugar, BIG plastics, BIG water, BIG pencils, BIG candy, BIG sex toys—sounds right. But the BIG often feels impossible to address, and it’s comforting to think that small sacrifices and practices add up to something, no matter how insignificant.
It’s important to feel part of something, as though you agreed to a process.
Bans take away consent and participation, and generate resentment and rebellion. As soon as the plastic paper ban went into effect, rumors started circulating about plastic papers being smuggled into the country. (I tried to convince a niece to ask her foreign classmates to smuggle in ziplock bags and build a thriving business, but the young refuse to be corrupted.)
A potentially broader fissure has opened between Kenyans affected by the ban and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA). Prior to the ban, NEMA was largely understood as the place that performed environmental assessments for infrastructural projects, assessing whether new construction endangered wetlands or other protected zones. Given the vast amounts of money required to construct buildings and roads in Kenya, NEMA was understood to deal with wakubwa, those with the resources to bribe their way to a favorable environmental impact report.
The plastic ban is the first time I recall that NEMA published and enforced a rule that affected wananchi. What were you going to carry fruits and vegetables in? How would you carry packets of milk? How would you gift friends and neighbors with extra potatoes and avocados? What will you do with the pile of plastic bags you’ve accumulated over many years?
No answers were given. Instead of wananchi being drawn into broader conversations about healthy, sustainable environmental practices, environmental safety was tethered to fear and intimidation, enforced through massive fines and harassment by authorities.
Kenyan political analyst, Patrick Gathara, likes to distinguish between wananchi and wenyenchi: ordinary residents of Kenya and those who own Kenya. The plastic ban worked at the seams of this divide. Wananchi take public transport and are far more likely to walk in public spaces where their habits are monitored. But those who own Kenya are far more likely to use private transport—cars and helicopters—and to move from one underground garage to luxury offices to a helipad to a private club. Few of these exclusive spaces will be policed by those charged with enforcing a ban. Those with money simply have more options: it’s easier to get your groceries placed in a cardboard box if you have a private car or a cab.
The ban on plastic bags has brought to the fore one of the many problems plaguing eco-activism in Kenya and elsewhere: What happens when measures to save the planet—or slow down its destruction—are understood as elite measures? What happens when eco-measures are weaponized against broader publics? What happens when eco-measures punish the less privileged?
Yesterday, a new ban by NEMA went into effect. The bags that had been widely adopted following the first ban on plastic bags–thin-gauge, single-use carrier bags–have now been declared unsuitable, even though everyone was (like plastic bags before them) using and re-using them. As with the first ban, NEMA has not provided low- and no-cost options. While this ban will be a slight nuisance to those who already have multiple options, it puts small traders and many wananchi in the terrible position of having to figure out something. And it puts them cursing all of those who preach about saving the environment.