[Column] Flora Mutahi: Managing plastic waste requires fresh thinking and a holistic approach
In Kenya the main concern regarding PET and the environment is the pollution associated with plastic packaging. According to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, approximately 50 million plastic bottles are used annually.
Due to their non – biodegradable nature, plastics can stay in the environment long after they are disposed especially when shielded from direct sunlight either due to being buried in landfills, hidden in forests or under water.
The issue of plastic waste management in Kenya is also associated with the general poor state of solid waste management and the poor infrastructure. Waste management companies are unable to cope with the growing percentage of refuse generated by the increasing population in urban areas.
A large part of our waste management problems is also due to poor public awareness and perception on plastic waste. As an industry we have a key role to play in creating awareness and advocating for behavior change which is the most effective way of addressing the menace.
Through this we have an opportunity to educate Kenyans on the implications of plastic waste pollution on the environment, their health, and their livelihoods – a push for behavior change.
Though there are concerns about the negative effects of plastics to the environment, PET is still a highly valued packaging material due to its strong, lightweight, non-reactive, economical, and shatterproof qualities. PET’s safety for food, beverage, personal care, pharmaceutical and medical applications is also recognized by health authorities around the world.
The use of plastic has increased over the years. Due to its versatility, light weight and cost-effective nature, it exists in our everyday lives in numerous forms which explains why global production of plastics has surged from 15 million metric tons in 1964 to 311 million metric tons in 2014.
As an industry, we are cognizant of the fact that though the growth of plastics comes with economic benefits, it has also largely contributed to solid waste.
This has led to a shift in the global conversation that seeks to address proper and sustainable management of plastic solid waste. Globally, environmentalists and policy makers are seeking alternatives to plastics such as glass and other material.
The reality is that we do not need to stop using plastic but need to roll out efficient and sustainable methods of waste management.
Trucost, a sustainability think-tank estimates that substituting plastic in consumer products and packaging with alternatives that perform the same function would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to a total of $533 billion.
In Kenya the industry’s proactive nature on PET waste management has been a game changer. In 2017, the PET Sector Group of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) entered into a partnership the government to kick off an advocacy and PET recycling initiative.
This is a win-win initiative that will ensure that the industry works hand in hand with the government to ensure there is a sustainable solution for all parties. The KAM members will adopt the successful model used by PETCO South Africa who run a successful industry-driven and financed initiative whereby PET bottles and waste are collected successfully recycled.
For this initiative to be successful, it will require the enrolment of members of the public who can help in proper disposal of plastic bottles for recycling. Recycling of PET has been considered a sustainable solution in various parts of the world because polyethylene terephthalate is a plastic resin and a form of polyester which is highly recyclable.
Innovation is also key, recycled PET can also be used to produce an array of products such as polyester carpet fiber, fabric for T-shirts, athletic shoes, industrial strapping, automotive parts, various art forms – just to mention a few.
Other than positive environmental impacts, this model will benefit Kenya’s economy, through the creation of jobs and promotion of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), who would be incorporated in the plastics recycling value chain.
The proposed model has a recycling chain which involves collection; sorting and separation; label removing washing and shredding; separation by floating among other process all of which require manpower translating to job creation/ employment.
A holistic approach with the active participation of the Public, Government, Industry and Non-Government Organizations is the only long-term solution to address any environmental concerns and solid waste problems.
Flora Mutahi is the Chairlady of Kenya Association of Manufacturers and Vice Chairperson of the COMESA Business Council.