Use a plastic bag, go to jail

It’s good to know that the only real problem left in Kenya involves plastic bags. Granted, it’s a big problem, as plastic bags are ubiquitous, particularly in the heavily populated urban areas. Well, the Kenyan government is fed up and won’t take it any more: According to a new law, anyone caught making, selling or using plastic bags could be fined up to $38,000 or spend up to four years in jail.

Reports on this turn of events say that Kenya has tried this tactic before—in 2007 and 2011—and failed. Predictions are that it will fail again, as the population—like populations around the world—is dependent on cheap, lightweight plastic carry bags.

Leah Oyake-Ombis, a researcher at the University of Nairobi, wrote a commentary in The Conversation: “Plastic bags also have an extremely important role in the average person’s daily life, as they stand out for their excellent fitness for use, resource efficiency and low price. For Kenya, where 56% of the population lives on less than a dollar per day, plastic bags support the “kidogo” economy. The economy is based on the small amounts people buy—one cup of cooking oil or a handful of washing powder or a squeeze of toothpaste, for example. To take these home, they need small plastic bags.” She believes that recovery and recycling would be a viable option.

Reuse might also be an option for some commodities—certainly bringing home a small amount of toothpaste in a plastic bag would render the bag unusable. Perhaps stores and other vendors could pay the consumer a small amount for returning the bags, some of which might be reusable. That could be a good incentive in a country where people live on less than a dollar a day.

There is also another answer. In July I wrote about oxo-degradable additive technology, which has been around since the 1970s, and spoke with Ray Loflin, Technical Sales Director for Willow Ridge Plastics based in Erlanger, KY.  Willow Ridge is a leader in the development and manufacture of oxo-degradable additives in North America.

Willow Ridge performs third-party testing for companies and governments worldwide. “The latest project we did was through the Rwandan government,” said Loflin. “They banned plastics in their country—no plastic film allowed—so we performed a 3 1/2 –year study for Rwanda, using Rwandan soil at room temperature, at our expense, through OWS—the leading laboratory for biodegradation studies, which the Rwandan bureau of standards oversaw. We’re working to write laws in Rwanda to bring back plastic packaging because the ban has really hurt its economy. Their packaging right now is paper, twine and paperboard. They are planning on bringing plastic packaging back into Rwanda.”

PlasticsToday talked to Loflin about this recent story coming out of Kenya. He commented, “I did read that story and found it very interesting. We are trying to make headway on that situation.”

There are several solutions, but it’s difficult in a country in which the first priority for the vast number of people is eking out a living any way they can.

Opportunities for a recycling plant would seem to be a really good option, as well. But building a recycling plant takes time. Finding a company with the technology that wants to invest in Kenya might be another hurdle. Waste-to-energy would seem almost ideal—at least it would recover the BTUs in plastics. Oxo-degradable additives such as what Willow Ridge offers would also seem to be a viable alternative. Obviously all of these take time and money.

In the meantime, maybe the threat of jail is the best short-term solution. Just don’t tell the government in the People’s Republic of California. That might give them a new idea. With all the minor prisoners they’re releasing to make room for major felons, they might start thinking that “plastic bag criminals” could help them fill the empty cells.

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