In the slums of many African countries, children’s daily life involves dodging mountains of discarded plastic bags. Now that Rwanda and Kenya are fighting back against the bag, what does this mean for families living in poverty?
27 Oct, 2017
Kigali, Rwanda: First impressions are of beautiful, bright colours and crowds of resilient people. Motorbike taxis with two helmets in matching green, blue or red, weave in and out of traffic. The wide streets are lined with new buildings and more are being built, their formwork propped up with thousands of sticks.
One thing, however, is conspicuous by its absence: rubbish. In particular, there are no plastic bags flying through the air or congregating in drains.
Rwanda banned single-use plastic bags in 2008 and heavy fines or jail sentences are in force for people found to be manufacturing, importing, using or selling polythene bags1. In August this year, Kenya instituted a similar law, amid a wave of controversy.
What does this ban mean for children living in poverty? Here is what we found:
1. Some family members may lose their jobs.
Before the ban, Kenya had 176 manufacturers of plastic bags, employing 60,000 people2. The bags they produced were used in Kenya, and were also exported to neighbouring countries. Without intervention, the loss of jobs from these industries could have a devastating effect on local communities. Rwanda softened the blow to industry by offering incentives for manufacturers to buy machinery to recycle plastic, instead of manufacturing it. Even with support for industry, an immediate result of the plastic bag ban may be that many parents lose their jobs and more children are living in poverty. However, establishing alternative industries or retraining, like Compassion’s income generation critical need, could help to fill this void.
2. Helping mum with the shopping could get a bit more complicated.
Plastic bags are much cheaper to produce than paper or woven alternatives but they are seldom used more than once. Even in communities where people live in poverty, shops are likely to provide plastic bags for shoppers to carry their groceries and other products. In fact, 24 million plastic bags were used in Kenya each month before the ban3.
Removing all plastic bags from the shops will require retailers and shoppers to be more resourceful. Kenya’s largest supermarket chain anticipated the ban and started using net bags for its vegetables earlier in the year4. The Rwandan government offered tax incentives to companies which manufacture environmentally friendly bags5 and many Rwandans use woven baskets to carry groceries home on their heads.
3. The children’s surroundings will be cleaner.
Countries across Africa are being swamped with abandoned plastic bags, as increased use of the bags outstrips the limited resources of local waste management services. Roads and pathways are littered with outcrops of plastic waste, which could take hundreds of years to break down.
Growing up in the Kibera and Dandora slums of Nairobi, Paul Omondi found that the dumping of plastic bags became an even greater health hazard because they were used for the disposal of human waste. He explained why it wasn’t a good idea to walk around after sunset. “People answered the call of nature in their ... rooms and they would store that in plastics bags and wait until dark sets in at about 8:00pm, when all the poos would be flying through the window,” Paul said. Without adequate sanitation and healthcare, children and infants were falling sick and dying. Through Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program, Paul had access to clean water, health education and sanitation. He survived to complete his education and fulfil his dreams but many of his friends didn’t.
Alternative methods of human waste disposal need to be integrated into the slums, so children aren’t exposed to the devastating diseases brought about by unhygienic surroundings. At the Compassion child development centres, providing clean, safe toilet facilities is a high priority.
4. The families’ livestock will be healthier.
Animals and birds don’t distinguish between plastic bags and food when rummaging through rubbish for something to eat. Abattoirs in Kenya have noticed an increase in the amount of plastics in the stomachs of the cattle and goats they process. The non-degradable plastic in the animal’s digestive system makes it difficult to resist disease and sometimes the livestock even starve to death because the bags completely fill their stomachs. Many farmers have welcomed the ban because they believe their animals will be healthier6.
5. The children’s homes, schools, and churches will be less likely to flood.
By design, plastic bags are waterproof. When they become litter, many find their way into drains and other waterways, clogging the pipes and restricting water flow. In times of heavy rain, water cannot run off fast enough, streams overflow their banks and the surrounding land is flooded.
Both Kenya and Rwanda experience seasons of heavy rainfall every year and overflowing drains can flood the surrounding regions with contaminated water. Makeshift homes and infrastructure are less likely to resist the force of the water, so floods are more devastating in poverty-stricken areas. Compassion provides emergency assistance to the registered children and their families at these times; restoring lost items and repairing damaged homes and child development centres.
Sadly, sometimes the result of flooding cannot be repaired, such as in the serious injury or death of a child or family member. It is far better to prevent flooding by keeping the storm water drains clean and—with a reduction in the use of plastic bags—authorities and plastic recyclers can clean the waterways and be confident it will take much longer for them to be blocked again.
Like many aspects of poverty, the results of the ban on plastic bags in Kenya will be complicated. For some children, the transition will be difficult, particularly if family members lose their livelihood because of the ban. But, if the immediate problems associated with such a major change to the economy are well managed, the long-term consequences will be very positive, providing a cleaner, safer environment for children to grow and thrive.
To help more children like Paul Omondi to achieve their dreams, sponsor a child today.
Words by Vivienne Hughes
Photo by Silas Irungu
- Official Gazette of the Republic of Rwanda (2008) http://extwprlegs1.fao.org/docs/pdf/rwa93800.pdf
- The Guardian, (2017) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/aug/28/kenya-brings-in-worlds-toughest-plastic-bag-ban-four-years-jail-or-40000-fine
- Ong’unya, R.O.; Aurah, C.M.; Nabwire, J.L. and Songok, J.R. (2014) The Plastic Waste Menace in Kenya: A Nairobi City Situation, International Journal of Current Research, Vol. 6, Issue 04, pp. 6175 – 6079.
- Dr. Rose Mukankomeje, Director General of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority, quoted in The Delicious Day, (2012) http://www.thedeliciousday.com/environment/rwanda-plastic-bag-ban/
Share the Joy this Christmas!
You can help give children living in poverty their own gift by donating to the Christmas Gift Fund. Learn more.
Sign up for stories
The best stories of the month, delivered to your inbox.