Nairobi, Kenya – Before the sun peaks over the horizon, Margaret Wambui is hard at work, trudging over hills of rancid waste at the Dandora landfill on the eastern outskirts of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.
She digs through freshly discarded refuse, meticulously segregating plastic bottles and depositing them into separate bags to sell on to ‘collectors’ who are positioned around the dumpsite.
Michael Kiteme is one of those collectors. He stands at the entrance of the landfill, supervising a group of women who further separate plastic bottles by colour– white in one heap, blue in another, clear in another and so on – to sell on to an aggregator who then sells the waste on to recyclers.
Kiteme has been an informal cog in Kenya’s plastic recycling trade for more than two decades. But in the past two years, his focus has shifted exclusively to one type of plastic: single-use polyethylene terephthalate or PET.
“I sell nearly two tonnes of PET every week, all from this dumpsite,” he tells Al Jazeera. “The value of waste plastic seems to have gone up in recent times.”
That’s because an industry-funded entity – Kenya PET Recycling Company (PETCO) – financially incentivizes collectors like Kiteme to pour their energies into gathering discarded single-use plastic bottles.
Collectors get 19 Kenyan shillings for every kilogramme of PET they sell to recyclers. PETCO then chips in a top-up of 5 Kenyan shillings (roughly $0.05), bringing the payday to 24 Kenyan shillings per kilogramme.
But critics say PETCO is not doing nearly enough to tackle Kenya’s plastic bottle problem.
The evidence is clear in and around the nation’s cities. Discarded PET bottles line roadsides and drainage ditches like confetti. Swathes of rivers flow beneath floating canopies of the stuff – waste that eventually ends up in lakes and oceans.
During the rainy season, the problem becomes dire when plastic waste clogs drainage systems, contributing to mass flooding.
“A vast amount of plastic waste is still ending up in landfills, or worse yet, getting into drainage systems,” Dr Vincent Madadi, a chemistry lecturer at the University of Nairobi, told Al Jazeera.
Bold bans but not enough to solve the problem
In 2017, Kenya moved to the forefront of the global war on single-use plastics when it outlawed the manufacturing, sale and distribution of plastic carrier bags.
The country built on that progress this year when a ban on single-use plastics in protected areas took effect in June.
Though the law signals progress, it only covers national parks, beaches and conservation areas. And there are still no laws requiring producers of PET plastics to take responsibility for managing the waste their products generate.
In 2018, Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) tried to extend the plastic bag ban to include single-use plastic containers – like bottles – made from PET.
But the corporate giants that produce and profit from PET sold the government on a self-regulated, industry-funded solution – which became PETCO.
Formed in 2018, PETCO is supposed to subsidise the collection and recycling of single-use plastics in a country where there is no government-funded infrastructure for processing a never-ending tsunami of it.
But PETCO has fallen short of its promise to protect the environment, say critics.
“[PETCO is] a scheme aimed at hoodwinking the government so that it wouldn’t institute the ban, as they knew that would force them to come up with alternative investments,” Amos Burudi Wemanya of Greenpeace Africa told Al Jazeera.
Few members, mounting waste
PETCO is supposed to bankroll infrastructure to help consumers segregate plastics and streamline the recycling process. But to date, that infrastructure has failed to materialise.
The company says that is because membership is purely voluntary, despite NEMA pledging in 2018 to make PETCO membership mandatory for all companies engaged in the plastics value chain.
“Kenya has got eight PET converters, but only one of them is a member,” PETCO CEO Joyce Gachungi tells Al Jazeera. “About 900 companies bottle drinking water in PET containers, but only eight of these are our members since there’s no law in Kenya that compels companies involved in the plastic value chain to join the organisation.”
Petco raises roughly $100,000 annually from membership fees, said Gachungi, far short of the $500,000 PETCO says is needed to recycle every plastic bottle produced in the country.
In the absence of promised infrastructure, the burden of recycling falls on ordinary Kenyans and a patchwork of sorters, collectors and buyers who simply cannot keep up with the volume of waste produced.
The shortfall is staggering. NEMA Director for Compliance and Enforcement, Zephaniah Ouma, told Al Jazeera that Kenya recycles only 15 percent of all the plastic waste it produces.
Wemanya reckons it is far lower. “I think Kenya is recycling two percent of what is generated,” he said.
High or low, both estimates place Kenya well behind schedule to meet the government’s stated goal of recycling 80 percent of plastic waste by 2030.
And Kenya’s plastic problem is compounded by other countries’ waste. After China shut its borders to most plastic waste imports in 2018, Kenya started taking in more of it.
Though the country has pledged to curb those imports, pressure is reportedly building from beyond its borders for it to become more plastic-waste friendly.
A letter from the American Chemistry Council – which represents major US petroleum firms – was seen by the Associated Press and pushed for Kenya to become a hub for distributing US-made plastics to the rest of Africa as part of a bilateral trade deal with the US.
Kenya offers corporate tax breaks to incentivize recycling efforts, including a value-added tax (VAT) exemption for products made from recycled materials. But environmental activists say the approach simply won’t work given the scale of the problem.
“Out of all the plastic that has ever been produced globally, research shows that only nine percent has been recycled so far,” said Wemanya. “This has mostly happened in more developed countries with requisite infrastructure. Now imagine a country like Kenya saying that it is going to recycle its plastic. That is not plausible.”
PETCO member Coca-Cola – which for the last two years has been named among the top three most notorious international corporate plastic polluters by the Break Free from Plastic movement – told Al Jazeera that it has no plans to phase out PET from its product line, and is instead focusing on recovering and recycling it.
“All packaging has a potential environmental impact, so it’s not as simple as saying one format is better than another,” Emily Waita Macharia, director of Public Affairs & Sustainability at Coca-Cola East and Central Africa, told Al Jazeera. “There are advantages to PET [plastic bottles]. It’s lightweight, resealable and has a lower carbon footprint than many packaging formats when a circular economy is created, which is our goal.”
NEMA is adamant that it will pursue an outright ban on plastic bottles if Kenya’s plastic waste problem continues to fester.
“We’ve pronounced our intentions to [impose] a ban on plastic bottles unless the situation improves,” said Ouma.
But Wemanya believes only a nationwide ban on single-use plastics will compel industry to find effective solutions and end the “throwaway” culture it perpetuates.
“Today, almost every Kenyan has a water bottle,” he said. “If only the industry would innovate around this by placing water dispensers at the points where they sell their bottled water for people to refill their bottles instead of picking up a new disposable bottle every time they need to quench their thirst.”