Nairobi’s Plastic Bags are Barking
Sometime symptoms are confused with the disease that causes them. I would argue that litter is a symptom.
According to an article in the April 7 New York Times (p. A4), scattered plastic bags around Nairobi are a curse caused by grocery bags that are many microns too thin. Everyone from govt. officials, to the U.N. has proposed cures. Below is the URL and quotes from the article:
NAIROBI JOURNAL: Flower of Africa:
A Curse That’s Blowing in the Wind
By MARC LACEY
“… All over Nairobi, and all over Africa, are ugly artificial blooms that mar the landscape and that environmentalists want plucked up and removed.
“These flowers are cheap, thin plastic bags that are tossed to the ground by consumers. This kind of litter has reached a critical mass in Kenya – clogging streams, choking animals and piling up into little mountains of disease.
“These bags are different from the ones that Westerners carry their groceries in from the neighborhood supermarket; the Kenyan bags are so thin they barely hold a few mangoes or a few pounds of corn meal without tearing.
“Their delicate nature makes reuse impossible and leads to their frequent introduction into nature…
“Wangari Maathai, the assistant environmental minister in Kenya and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, says the sacks provide a breeding place for malarial mosquitoes, helping spread one of the continent’s major killers.
“I’m not saying don’t use plastics at all,” Dr. Maathai said recently as she extolled the virtues of more homegrown bags, like those made of sisal or cotton, or the traditional baskets, which were what people used before plastic came along.
“A recent study by the National Environmental Management Authority and the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis estimated that more than 100 million light polythene bags, many of them thinner than 30 microns, are handed out each year in Kenyan supermarkets, which is more than 4,000 tons of the bags every month. The study recommended banning the thin bags, which are believed to make up most of the litter. Other bags, it said, should be taxed to provide a financial incentive for bag manufacturers to come up with more environmentally friendly alternatives.
“The tax could then go to support recycling efforts, which are not common in Africa, says the report, which was financed by the United Nations Environment Program.
“The report notes that there would be some job losses if Kenya outlawed the manufacture of plastic bags, which is a booming industry here that supplies all of East Africa. But it notes that other jobs would probably be created among cotton bag manufacturers. Nairobi’s street children and others might also earn some income from picking up plastics if a recycling program was started. …” (article continues)
Grocery bags are handy. Kenyan bags are, according to the article, thinner than similar bags in the U.S.. Grocery stores could switch to more expensive thicker plastic bags, but of course would have to pass the higher cost on to customers by raising prices. Is that what customers would prefer? If the thin bags break too much (as the article states) why don’t customers purchase their own thicker plastic bags and bring them when they shop?
Of course I am not an expert on litter in Nairobi. I live in Seattle, Washington, USA. We have thicker plastic bags. And some grocery stores offer only much thicker and bulkier (and less strong) paper bags. But we also have a problem with litter here. You can see plastic bags and other trash on many undeveloped properties where owners are absent, and where property is owned by city, county, or national government agencies.
The economist Hernando de Soto argues in his book “The Mystery of Capital” that in many developing countries it is barking dogs that signal property boundaries. Local governments often do a poor job of registering who owns what, but informal systems (like barking dogs) can arise to guide everyday activity.
I wonder if the litter of plastic bags in Nairobi is the barking dog signaling where government for some reason hangs on to property it can’t adequately manage.
The government and the U.N. are ready to tax grocery bags and hire people to pick up plastic bags. What if instead they hired people to assign ownership to littered land. Or maybe the tasks could be combined. One could mix their labor with the land by clearing it of litter and keeping it clear for a year. After a year they would earn clear title and could use the land as they please. Or could sell it off and move on to clear another parcel.