TCS Daily

Nairobi's Plastic Bags are Barking

By Greg Rehmke - April 11, 2007 12:00 AM

Sometime symptoms are confused with the disease that causes them. Litter is one such symptom often confused with an economic disease.

Consider the scattered plastic bags around Nairobi, that, according to the New York Times, are a curse caused because they are many microns too thin. Kenyan government officials, along with the UN, have proposed legislative cures. As usual, political force is proposed to solve the plastic problem.

The problem is described here:

"... 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."

That was April, 2005. Nairobi citizens and animals have apparently survived this "critical mass" of garbage into 2007.

Africans, apparently conscious to conserve scarce plastic resources, used less:

"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."

(Africans are apparently light shoppers, rarely buying anything heavier than a few mangos, according to the New York Times).

And these plastic bags, not Western-backed DDT restrictions, turn out to be a cause of malaria. Again quoting the New York Times:

"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."

Dr. Maathai suggests African shoppers instead use "sisal or cotton, or the traditional baskets, which were what people used before plastic came along."

Now, through targeted legislation, Kenya could rid itself of unsightly plastic bag pollution, which are "clogging streams, choking animals," and nurturing malarial mosquitoes, and create thousands of jobs in traditional basket-making. Perhaps new industries could be nurtured, too. The pesky T-shirts dumped by Americans on Africa could have sleeves and collars sewn shut to make new long-lasting cotton shopping bags.

The National Environmental Management Authority and the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis authored a plastic bag study, sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program, claiming over 100 million are used by Kenyan shoppers each year. Since each can hold "barely a few mangos," according to the New York Times, many must accompany shoppers home (Though apparently shoppers toss the bags aside as litter before reaching home, and carry their few mangos inside by hand (perhaps the study provides details).

The study called for banning the thin plastic bags, and suggested other types of bags to "be taxed to provide a financial incentive for bag manufacturers to come up with more environmentally friendly alternatives." The study helpfully suggested "The tax could then go to support recycling efforts."

Job losses would follow a ban on plastic bags, according to the study, as Kenya has "a booming industry here that supplies all of East Africa." But the study suggests all is not lost as "other jobs would probably be created among cotton bag manufacturers." And "Nairobi's street children and others might also earn some income from picking up plastics if a recycling program was started. ..."

Grocery bags are handy. Kenyan bags, thinner according to the article than similar bags in the U.S., are the problem. 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. Paper bags could be used if nearby pulp and paper supplies are adequate. Is thicker plastic or paper 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 (especially if they plan to purchase more than a few mangos)? Surely they would notice if their grocery bags regularly break on the way home. Africans are poor, but too poor to afford a few extra microns for their plastic bags?

Of course I am not an expert on either plastic bag technology nor litter in Nairobi. I live in Seattle, Washington, USA. We have thicker plastic grocery bags. And some grocery stores (such as Trader Joe's, where I shop) offer only much thicker and bulkier (and less strong) paper bags.

Still, though, we have a problem with litter (and have mosquitos in the summer, if not malaria). You can see plastic bags and other trash accumulating on undeveloped properties where owners are absent, or where property is owned by city, county, or national government agencies.

Economist Hernando de Soto notes in his book "The Mystery of Capital" that in developing countries barking dogs signal often informal 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 commercial 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. Are these thin plastic bags "clogging streams" and "choking animals" everywhere or randomly throughout Nairobi? Or are the problems they cause more likely to be on government owned property?

The Kenyan government and the U.N. are ready to tax grocery bags and hire people to pick up littered plastic bags. What if, instead, people are hired to assign ownership to littered land? Or maybe the tasks could be combined. Kenyans 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.

Gregory Rehmke is program director of Economic Thinking.


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