The recent ban on plastic bags by the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources, Prof. Judy Wakhungu, came as a surprise to many as several initiatives aimed at reducing their use had failed in the past. The ban was welcomed by many Kenyans although in some quarters the news was a bitter pill to swallow, especially for the manufacturers of these bags. This ban will obviously increase the cost of packaging materials as it is hard to get an alternative at the same price. Plastic bags are so inexpensive, that we hardly notice their cost and thus we under utilize them, disposing them even when they are still usable. First introduced in the 1970s these products have been one of the most successful in recent years. It is hard to imagine any household that does not use several of these bags annually, and therefore we will all feel the pinch of this ban.
However, I would argue, this is a small price to pay compared to the several negative impacts of plastic bags to the environment and by extension our health. We have come to know these bags as a big nuisance to the environment, mainly because they are an eyesore when disposed inappropriately. But there is more to plastic bags than that. In Kenya for instance, plastic bags are usually burned in open fires, both in our urban centers and also in rural areas. When these bags are burnt, they release potent air toxins most of which are known to have adverse health effects. For instance, these air toxins are known to increase the risk of heart disease, aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema, they also cause damages in the nervous system, kidney, liver and the reproductive system. Some of the toxins are also known to be carcinogens (Causes cancer).
In the environment, plastic bags do not biodegrade and can take up to 1000 years in the environment to break down. However, when exposed to the sun radiation they undergo a photo degradation process, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. These pieces become more mobile and contaminate soils, water bodies and can even enter the food chain when ingested by animals. These pieces can even find their way into the oceans forming massive whirlpool-like currents commonly called gyres. Currently the world has five of these gyres. In a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur foundation, estimates indicate that by the year 2050, the total weight of all plastics in the oceans will outweigh that of Fish species in the oceans. This phenomenon has already been recorded in some quarters.
Although plastic bags have considerable negative impacts on the environment, they have replaced the use of paper bags. Paper bags also do have their fair share of environmental impacts even though they are biodegradable, which I think is their major advantage. Paper bags are produced from biomass raw materials, mainly trees, and this could increase the rate of deforestation which is already a major concern globally. Forests, in themselves serve a great role in maintaining the ecosystem balances. In fact, it is estimated that about 80% of the world’s documented species reside in tropical forests, which are highly impacted by deforestation.
There are no quick answers to the packaging material problem. Both plastic and paper bags come at a high environmental cost. So next time you go to the super market and you are asked what type of bag you would want your goods in, just surprise them by pulling out a tightly packed reusable bag from your pocket.