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Swahili Backstory: Plastic Ban

September 27, 2018

Swahili Backstory:  Plastic Ban

Serious mom face.

A little over a year ago, Kenya made one of those "I mean it" declarations I like to give my kids after nicely repeating a request twice. Leveraging up to a $38,000 fine or four years in prison against the sale or use of single-use plastic bags, Kenya has taken a fierce stance against an environmental menace.

Why so harsh?

Take a look back. Piles of dirty discarded plastic bags line the streets of high-density neighborhoods like Kibera and Mathare, areas where a lack of sanitation services mean plastic bags are often used as "flying toilets". Fish wash up either strangled by plastic or filled with it. Fisherman pull in nets choked with discarded plastic bags, and the stomachs of butchered cattle are filled with plastic:  Kenya feels plagued with plastic waste. A seemingly indispensable element of modern life, plastic is threatening public and environmental health in a region where garbage remains sorely visible in spite of fledgling waste management and recycling initiatives.

If at first you don't succeed...

In a bold move, Kenya made single-use plastic a major enemy of the state, and the bag ban immediately set off citizens and business owners challenged by the higher cost of environmentally friendly packaging. Having already attempted a bag ban twice with weak results, the Kenyan government faced the near promise of non-compliance squarely with staggering penalties for using almost all types of polyethylene. This "adapt or pay," mandate felt a lot like strong-arming in the name of the environment, but a year in, it's kind of working.

Little Fixes

We were promptly alerted by our Kenyan partners that much of the packaging we had grown accustomed to would be changing due to the ban. Kraft paper began appearing in place of plastic bags in Kenyan shipments after summer 2017, and small items like earrings starting arriving wrapped in inexpensive and easily accessible toilet tissue or scrap paper. Understandably, we had a few pains receiving damaged or displaced products as artisans worked to balance the cost of environmentally-friendly packaging with the need to ensure safe transit, but now, plastic is starting to seem like overkill.

Close to home

While it's easy to justify a ban with up to a $40K penalty as a reasonable response to environmental duress when it's levied against individuals a continent away, it's not as easy to imagine life in America if similar measures were taken to reduce the proliferation of single-use plastic. When I look at my life objectively, I see single-use plastic everywhere. I'm daunted by the idea of trying to eliminate all of it; I'm tempted to just rely on an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality to convince me that plastic waste is not a problem here because the stinking dirty piles of it aren't lining my streets--my plastic is safely out of sight in landfills waiting out many long years of remaining life.


Looking around the warehouse, I see products that require great pains to create, transport across oceans and prepare for safe delivery to your store. At Swahili, we've always prided ourselves on using recycled and recyclable materials as often as possible, but I know there's a way to go before we're free of plastic packaging as a business, perhaps even longer for me to achieve a plastic-free home. The mandate Kenya laid down sits in the back of my mind. If Kenya can put down single-use plastic (albeit if by force) to improve public and environmental health, can we not all follow suit by choice?

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