‘There is so much out there’: Kenya’s plastic bag battle – in pictures

Plastic bags are an infamous problem in Nairobi. They clog its waterways and litter its streets. The Kenyan government is attempting to ban their use from August – with implications for businesses from supermarkets to recyclers.

Photographs and words by Nathan Siegel

Nairobi’s waterways are strewn with plastic bags, which activists say threaten marine and land ecosystems. In February the Kenyan government said it would ban the use, manufacture and importation of plastic bags from the end of August.

Cyprian Ogoti, one of a group of activists credited with spurring the planned ban, takes a photo of garbage in Nairobi river to share on social media. In early June, a parliamentary committee demanded that notice of the ban be suspended. It follows similar calls from the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, which says the ban threatens tens of thousands of jobs.

Nakumatt, Kenya’s biggest supermarket chain, has started using netting for vegetables in anticipation of the new regulation. ‘We view the ban as a positive change and, as the largest issuer of plastic bags, we have a responsibility to the environment,’ says chief marketing officer Andrew Dixon.

On the outskirts of Nairobi, employees at the A-One Plastics factory prepare plastic waste for recycling. The company already supplies biodegradable plastic bags – which will not be covered by the ban – to French supermarket chain Carrefour in the capital.

A worker at A-One Plastics collects pieces of plastic waste and feeds them into a machine to break them down further. CEO Jazir Teja says the company recycles 20 to 30 tonnes of plastic waste per day, around 15% of which is plastic bags.

Alternative Energy Systems (AES), in nearby Thika, turns used plastic bags gathered from dumpsites and supermarkets into fuel, which it sells to hotels, factories and other large businesses. It employs 700 people and processes 12 tonnes of plastic bags per day according to Rajesh Kent, the company’s CEO.

A site used by AES to store plastic bag waste before it is processed into fuel. Kent does not expect the plastic bag ban to hurt business, he says: ‘There is so much plastic out there as is, it would take years to go through it.’

Francis Muiga, founder of Challenge Gift Bags, outlines bags in his workshop in Kikuyu, a Nairobi suburb. He says the planned plastic bag ban is ‘long overdue’. The company uses surplus paper from larger manufacturers to make around 2,000 bags per week, which it sells to large hotels and shops.

Employees of Challenge Gift Bags print business logos on to paper bags. Muiga says business has grown 10% since the ban was announced.

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