In the last couple of weeks, Kenya has hit the world news headlines for the right reasons.
Their courts have been busy pushing their environmental policies to the forefront and deepening their democratic practice by giving a swift judgement on the recent election petition by the country’s opposition party. Both moves deserve applause as they cast Africa in positive limelight.
The news that has gladdened my heart the most however, is the environmentally linked ban on the use of plastic carriers and bags in the country. What a bold stance for public good.
According to a BBC news report carried by “Today” newspaper on 29th August, 2017, the country’s High Court, in considering a case filed by two plastic bags importers praying the Court to drop the threats of a ban, has rather ruled against the petition on the grounds that environmental concerns were more important than commercial interests. That was a profound elucidation.
The ban of plastic bags in Kenya means that anyone found selling, manufacturing or carrying them could face fines of up to $38,000 or prison sentences up to four years. Even those entering the country and who have plastic carrier bags on them would have to leave them at the airport.
My observations with the plastic bags situation in our beloved Ghana, day after day as one travels around, are sorrowful and disappointing. Plastic bags of all colours are now swallowing us up. The situation in our capital is heartbreaking in view of our quest to present the world with a model of a clean city. Our drains and gutters are choked with no space to breathe.
Our sea shores and beaches are no longer places of beauty and opportunity to admire nature. They are rather unsightly receptacles for plastic waste. We have been completely overwhelmed with plastic waste in our communities and the saddest thing is the unhealthy behaviour of irresponsible individuals who use plastic bags to receive their excreta and dump same unashamedly in gutters or throw them into the sea. Such irresponsible acts are some of the reasons why, to a larger extent, the ban in Kenya gladdens my heart.
Every well-meaning Ghanaian would not deny the fact that the pollution of our environment with plastic waste constitutes one of our biggest sanitation challenges. Yes, galamsey is a threat and so is illegal commercial motorbikes popularly known as “Okada.” In categorising them as menaces to society therefore, plastic waste could easily be included in this categorisation in view of its harmful effects.
We are told by experts that it takes between 20 and 1,000 years for plastics to biodegrade. Going by this alone therefore, we are building communities where very soon, no one can even undertake small backyard gardens to grow vegetables not to mention large scale farming.
Food selling and plastic bags
Today, everything one buys, whether from the wayside, in the shops, at the eateries, or in traffic, one is sure to have them in layers of plastic bags. From morning till night, one person is likely to have used and dumped at least three plastic bags somewhere.
For breakfast, the “koko” and “koose” sellers in the morning are serving almost everything in plastic bags. The “waakye” or kenkey sellers are doing same and likewise “ampesi,” banku and even soup sellers are also dishing lunch and dinner in plastic bags.
Snacks are not spared the craze of plastic bags. Wayside roasted plantain and groundnuts, boiled groundnuts and if you are the one who buys ready-to-eat fruits, pawpaw, pineapple, sugarcane and watermelon on the go, they are sold readily packed in plastic bags.
These days the disturbing trend is animals such as cows and goats let loose and grazing in our communities (a greater nuisance that the Assemblies have turned blind eyes to). What it means is that these animals are chewing plastic bags left around. We as consumers of meat go out there to buy meats from these same animals. Are there any health implications here and which we have not put much thought to?
The same can be said of the fish we buy whether smoked, fried or fresh. There have been numerous complaints by fishermen along our coasts that these days they go fishing only to come back with nets full of plastic waste. And it is true. Anyone who drives along the beach road towards the lighthouse in Accra West will not miss the heaps of plastic waste dumped there by the fishermen returning from sea.
So, if our ocean is polluted with plastic waste then certainly, we are damaging aquatic life in the sea. But not only that, the few surviving fishes are feeding on plastic waste which eventually end up on our tables.
The plastic waste menace has reached overwhelming levels. Indeed, even our waste collectors do not seem to understand the need to separate plastic waste from all other household waste. I used to separate mine until my waste collector started charging me extra for keeping two dustbins. No amount of reasoning could convince him about the need to separate out waste.
Just as we have done with galamsey to save our water bodies, our farm lands and the environment in general, sooner than later, we would need to relook the effects of indiscriminate use and dumping of plastic bags and other non-degradable plastics and take a bold decision on how to minimise their total effect on our environment and communities, apart from their unsightly looks.
If countries like China, Rwanda, Eritrea and Mauritius have been able to ban plastic bags in their countries and now Kenya, considering public good over any other considerations, then, our country should begin to look at measures to control the use of plastic bags.
There would always be the counter argument about job losses in situations of the kind. What we need is the learning from others and see how such bans or restrictions have turned to rather bring in jobs which are less harmful to the environment.
Already in Kenya, one learns that the supermarkets have adjusted to the ban and are selling fabric bags for shoppers who want to use them to pack their shopping. This is how the ban has opened up a new job creation avenue for those in the fabric industry as well as those in the bag manufacturing industry.
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. We need to close the door to plastic bag pollution for other doors that would afford us the sanity of our environment. Nothing ventured, really, is nothing gained.
…with Vicky Wireko-Andoh (firstname.lastname@example.org)