Climate Goes on Strike and 'To Ban or Not to Ban?' A Plastic Waste Debate

Al-Jazeera Photo - Sep NID.jpg

Feature image: Simon Maina AFP/ Aljazeera

Welcome to Nairobi Ideas Digest, a monthly digest with a focus on Africa that unpacks big ideas related to science and research. Nairobi Ideas Digest is part of the Mawazo Institute’s public engagement program that supports the dissemination of good ideas, relevant research, and innovation. As we roll out our first digest, we’re taking a closer look at ongoing discourse around environmental conservation on the African continent, starting with a dive into plastic waste.

Just last week, on Friday 20th September, young impassioned Kenyans took to the streets en masse to participate in the Global Climate Strike,  a youth-focused protest calling for urgent action on climate. The initiative is helmed by  16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who later estimated on Twitter that over 4 million people around the world joined the Climate Strike. According to Quartz Africa’s reporting on the day, protesters made the point that 7 out of the 10 countries projected to be most severely affected by climate change are on the African continent.

As the agency and conversation on climate impact shifts, from the halls of government to everyday citizens exchanging ideas online, misinformation can spread easily. The Conversation recently published an article that unpacks the difference between man-made climate change and ‘natural’ climate change arguing that, “society cannot use ‘lack of evidence’ on its cause as an excuse for inaction any more.”  It would be hard to deny that the conversation around climate is also complicated by the need for economic growth, particularly on the continent, that can help lift millions out of poverty.

To help bring the conversation home, we began by addressing Kenya’s plastic bag ban, which turned two this September. Data from an Our World in Data report on global plastic pollution published in September 2018 asserts that while high-income countries produce significantly more plastic waste, low to middle-income countries have much worse waste management systems, and thus contribute more highly to plastic pollution in the oceans.

Africa is currently leading the world in plastic waste bans, with 34 countries having adopted some form of a plastic ban according to the National Geographic. In Kenya, 2017 legislation focused on banning single-use plastic bags with some of the steepest penalties for manufacturing, selling and possession of the bags in the world. Ephrat Livni with Quartz Africa has outlined how other countries on the continent have progressed, and gives Kenya kudos for visible progress. While many, like Livini, applaud Kenya’s efforts, we wanted to look closer at the plastics ban and hear from its detractors, as well as its supporters.  

 The Nairobi Ideas Podcast  spoke to two Kenyans whose work is focused on plastic waste in Kenya. James Wakibia, is an environmentalist and photographer, who was in large part responsible for popularizing a digital campaign calling for a ban on plastics. It was this campaign that would be picked up by then Minister of Environment Judy Wakhungu, and renew efforts to ban plastic bags in the country. In dialogue with Mawazo’s Kari Mugo, James stresses the severity of plastic pollution in Kenya, shares his tag line #LessPlasticIsFantastic, and offers simple ways in which everyone can participate in decreasing plastic waste. You can to listen to our conversation with James here.


National Environmental Agency (NEMA). “2 years on: Say no to plastic bags.” NEMA. September 2019.

On the heels of this episode, is a conversation with Dr Leah Oyake-Ombis, an expert in plastic waste management who strongly disagrees with the 2017 ban.  “The ban on plastic [bags] for Kenya I find was not well consulted,” Dr. Leah says. “We did not have a ban informed by research and some of the developments that had happened in the field of plastic waste.” Instead, Dr. Leah offers alternative solutions for handling plastic waste in economies like Kenya, and offers a cautionary tale for other African countries that may be considering plastic bans. Be sure to subscribe to the Nairobi Ideas Podcast on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Afripods, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

For more reading on these topics, we recommend the following.

For Listening

“Meet James Wakibia” and “Meet Dr. Leah Oyake-Ombis.” Nairobi Ideas Podcast. Episode 8 & 9. September 2019.

“Global Warming at the Equator.” Otherwise? Episode 93. Podcast. March 2019.

“Costing the Earth.” BBC Radio 4. Podcast. 2019.

For Reading 

Tollefson, Jeff. “The hard truths of climate change — by the numbers.” Nature. September 2019.

Otieno, Sam. “Kenya launches biodiversity and climate change strategy.” SciDev.Net. February 2016.  

Till next time, keep it nerdy, and remember ‘less plastic, is fantastic!’