16 May 2018 Story Environmental rights and governance

How smuggling threatens to undermine Kenya’s plastic bag ban

It’s late Sunday morning in Koyonzo and the central market, which straddles the main road of this town in western Kenya, is already filling with people. Vendors arrange piles of smoked fish and vegetables at their stalls while teenagers navigate the marketplace with baskets of bananas on their heads for sale. At the nearby bus stop motorbike drivers lounge on vehicles and play music on their phones, waiting for the next customer.

But among the shoppers and vendors is an unusual sight: about 50 people are bent at the waist with brooms and bags, combing the marketplace for plastic litter, of which there is plenty. A local NGO, the Youth Education Network, have organized a cleanup to help educate people about plastic pollution, and especially about the issue of plastic bags.

Koyonzo cleanup
A recent cleanup in Koyonzo in western Kenya targeted the village's central market. (Duncan Moore/UN Environment)

Plastic bags are illegal in Kenya, and have largely disappeared from many parts of the country. But there is still a black market for them and, thanks to smugglers, they are easy to find here in Koyonzo, both in the marketplace and on the ground as trash.

On 29 August 2017, Kenya implemented a total ban on single-use plastic bags, a move celebrated by environmentalists around the world and one that reflects a growing global trend to ban the disposable products. With the government threatening large fines and even prison sentences for violators, the effects were immediately noticeable and bag litter reduced substantially. However, while the ban has largely been considered a success, bags have not disappeared entirely. In certain regions, they are still being smuggled into the country.

In East Africa, Rwanda is the only other country to have successfully implemented such a ban, meaning that there are plenty of places smugglers can get plastic bags and bring them across the Kenyan border to sell on the black market. Kenya is bordered by five countries, and the Ugandan border along Lake Victoria has emerged as a high-traffic area for illicit bags.

Koyonzo, located in Kakamega County in Western Kenya, is a perfect example of this plastic spillover. The town lies just 50 kilometers from the Busia border crossing, a joint facility run by Kenya and Uganda.

Later that Sunday, even with the sun setting, a constant stream of people flows both ways across the border, most pushing carts or carrying goods for sale on the other side. In a parallel lane vans and lorries line up, waiting for their turn to drive through.

This cross-border exchange is a boon for the economy, but can also make enforcing the plastic bag ban a nightmare. Here it’s easy to see why, despite recent smuggling busts and cooperation between the two governments, the illegal bag trade has become such an issue.

Just steps across the official boundary, in Uganda, plastic bags are ubiquitous. A shoe store along the border fence displays piles of sneakers individually wrapped in plastic, while every other vendor in sight hands their product to the customer in a plastic bag. The sheer number of people crossing, combined with the availability of plastic bags on the Ugandan side, means sneaking them across the porous border is relatively easy.

Kenya Uganda border
Plastic bags are illegal in Kenya, but many of them still make their way across the country's border with Uganda. (Duncan Moore/UN Environment)

This issue has prompted many Kenyan leaders to call for bans in Uganda and other neighbouring countries, and ideally a regional ban among the East African community.

John Baraza Wangwe, the environmental minister of Kakamega county and also a participant in the Koyonzo cleanup, stressed the importance of regional cooperation on the issue.

“We share a common water source, plastic waste effects drainage and marine life within our rivers and lakes. This issue affects everyone,” says Wangwe. “There should be a regional approach among the East African community to banning plastic bags. To ensure that all countries partake in and enforce the law.”

As more bag bans come into effect, it has become apparent that their success often depends on regional cooperation and the capacity to manage the flow of plastics from other countries.

Plastic bags Uganda
Plastic bags are a common sight just over the border in Uganda. (Duncan Moore/UN Environment)

Rwanda, which has banned plastic bags since 2008, is constantly battling the issue of smuggling. Often called the cleanest nation in Africa, the border Rwanda shares with the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a major source of illicit plastics, and border officials are kept busy apprehending and prosecuting smugglers. Morocco, which was formerly the world’s second-largest consumer of plastic bags behind the United States, has also had to deal with similar issues after implementing a ban in 2017. In the first year of enforcement, authorities seized over 420 tonnes of illegal bags.

While plastic bag smuggling remains an issue in Kenya, local authorities have vowed to crack down on those who defy the law, and despite some issues many countries are now looking to the ban as a model example. In East Africa, countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan are considering similar laws on single-use plastic bags. This growing momentum means that a regional ban in East Africa could indeed become a reality, especially as countries around the world increasingly look for ways to beat plastic pollution.

#BeatPlasticPollution is the theme of World Environment Day 2018.