A cleaner Environment is our Collective Responsibility

By Phyllis Wakiaga 

A fortnight ago, a photograph of a ditch strewn with discarded water bottle went viral on social media in the wake of the Mater Heart Run.

Understandably, it provoked calls for responsible waste management, showing that even as the county governments that manage urban centers receive criticism for what is deemed as a slow response to matters of garbage disposal, the public has a role to play in the matter.

Debate about the use of plastic bottles and their impact on the environment has grown in recent months. This was sparked partly by the ban on plastic bags in 2017.

There have been strong debates on both the total ban and the responsible recycling of all waste. Either side armed with facts to justify their conviction. However waste – whether plastic, e-waste, solid, chemical – is a fact of human life and we have to seek ways that deal holistically and sustainably with this issue. As long as humans live, consume, transact, move, work and create, waste will consistently be churned out.

So we need to start speaking to responsible disposal of waste be it plastic bottles or any other.

Every year, millions of single-use bottles end up in landfill sites, drainages, rivers and eventually in our lakes and oceans. The effect of plastic waste on marine life has been well-documented. Something can be done about this and it has already started.

Firstly, not every plastic water bottle ends up in the landfill. There are companies that recycle these bottles, in fact, plastic bottles are some of the most recycled products in Kenya after newspapers and aluminum. The material from the recycled bottles is used to make eco-friendly fencing posts, carpets, shoe and other plastic containers.

We all appreciate that apart from the environmental benefits of recycling, there are many employment opportunities that have been created within the recycling chain.

Additionally, reuse and recycling of waste and plastic bottles in particular broaden our collective responsibilities as manufacturers, national and county governments, retailers as well as the public.

As manufacturers, a number of plastic manufacturing industries have internal reprocessing capacity for their own waste and castoffs while there are other players that solely rely on waste plastic bottles as their main raw materials for production.

Along the value chain there are waste pickers and small-scale traders plying in unprocessed plastic waste directly to plastic producers for use as a raw material in the manufacture of new plastic products.

This is a more sustainable solution to plastic bottle waste management as the plastic waste collection, by informal actors, presents a more realistic and organic approach.

So, while global appetite for plastic continues unabated, all efforts towards the sustainable management of waste PET bottles have been employed. Manufacturers through KAM recently signed a Framework of Cooperation with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).

Within the framework, KAM commits to the implementation of structured and sustainable take-back schemes and extended producer responsibility schemes for the management of PET waste bottles. This will be done through a public private partnership arrangement that will have the manufacturers working with county governments countrywide and other informal actors to develop comprehensive recycling schemes guided by circular economy principles.

Generally, manufacturers have committed to collect up to 20 per cent of disposable and reusable bottles for recycling in 2018, with an ambitious target of 70 per cent recycling by 2030 as part of end-of life management efforts.

Such a collaborative shift in our approach to used PET plastic bottles calls for more of a circular-economy mindset, one that truly starts seeing waste as a resource. For consumers, this also calls for upcycling (creative reuse) and behavioral change in how we dispose of plastic bottles if we are to turn the tide on litter and waste.

The reality is we live in an age where plastic has become the cheaper, accessible and definitely less fragile, option for packaging, providing variety for consumers and manufacturers. It will not be possible to throw it out of the window, but we can adopt innovative ways to dispose of it and to recycle it.

Keeping our environment clean is a marathon and not a sprint, and it is our collective responsibility to make sure we live in a litter-free environment that delivers long-term economic, social and ecological prosperity.

The writer is the CEO of Kenya Association of Manufacturers and the UN Global Compact Network Representative for Kenya. She can be reached at ceo@kam.co.ke.

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