Despite a single-use bag ban in 2017, Nairobi and its waste collectors are still inundated with plastic. Can a new law pin responsibility on the manufacturers?
In the sprawling dump in east Nairobi, Emmanuel Lucy rummages through glass, metal, leftover food and dirt. The 25-year-old waste collector sorts quickly, picking out plastic bottles with one gloved hand, and throwing them into a large woven sack with the other.
Lucy is one of thousands of workers who sort through Kenya’s street and landfill waste for recyclable materials. On a good day at the Dandora dump, he makes 350 Kenya shillings (£2) for several kilograms of plastic bottles, which he sells to recyclers through agents. It’s familiar work – he has done it on and off since he was eight years old.
The production of plastic products has exploded over the past decade. Nairobi, Kenya’s capital – with a population of nearly 4.4 million – generates more than 2,400 tonnes of solid waste every day – a fifth of which is plastic.
“The amount of plastic waste is quite significant,” says Jane Mutune, an environmental studies lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
Kenya banned single-use plastic bags in 2017 – a move that was lauded as groundbreaking. The national environmental authority says 80% of the public have complied with the ban. In 2020, single-use plastics were prohibited in protected areas such as parks and forests.
Despite the success of the bag ban, it has not been enough to eliminate the country’s struggles with pollution, as it did not include many other forms of plastic, including bottles, rubbish bags and takeaway containers.
“We need to be careful that we don’t defeat the essence of the ban by allowing so much [plastic waste] by primary packaging,” says the environmental activist James Wakibia, who pushed for the ban on plastic bags.
“Going down to the river and seeing so many plastic bottles and other kinds of plastic garbage … it frustrates me a lot,” he says. “We need to broaden the campaigns and fight against plastic pollution.”
On the roads to Dandora, plastic litter lines the streets, threatening to block drains during heavy rains.
“The dumpsite is a real menace,” says Gregory Ngugi, who runs a local youth group, the Dandora Youth Multipurpose. “Many of the trucks transport the garbage exposed, so it goes spilling on the road.”
The air around the site is filled with the smell of rancid waste. Garbage collection services in the neighbourhood are informal and woefully inadequate, says Ngugi, so residents often litter or dump household waste by the roadside.
Waste pickers such as Lucy, who play a significant role removing plastic from the streets and landfill, face a tremendous amount of stigma due to their work. The work exposes them to cuts, bacterial infections and diseases such as cholera. Those who sleep and eat at the dump risk coming into contact with toxic substances.
“We are exposed to death every day,” says John Chweya, the chair of the Kenyan National Waste Pickers Association. “Waste pickers do most of the work out of the pollution that companies are bringing to the environment. But we hardly get anything out of the job.”
Dandora residents fear the expansion of the 12-hectare (30-acre) landfill in the coming years. The land on which it sits used to host a kids’ play area and a bar called Peru.
A sustainable waste management law, which will come into force in July, will require companies to reduce the pollution and environmental impacts of the products they introduce into the Kenyan market – either individually or through collective schemes. Previously, businesses were not obliged to take part in waste collection and recycling schemes such as Petco, an initiative created in 2018 after authorities threatened to ban the production and sale of plastic bottles. Only a few companies signed on, and its membership has remained dismal.
“We have over 1,000 companies that are producing bottled drinking water in the country, yet our membership … is [only] about 13 or 14 companies,” the Petco CEO, Joyce Gachungi, told the Guardian.
Environmental activists have welcomed the new producer-responsibility legislation. Regulations outlining how the new law will work will be introduced by 2024.
“For the longest time, industries have been running away from responsibility, so this law will put them to task,” says Wakibia.