Ojuala is a ball made of strips of compacted plastic bags and held together by interwoven sisal rope. These balls were well crafted. They bounced off walls and let out a resounding thud when they connected with a striking foot. Young boys reused and recycled in the days of scarcity and kicked ojuala balls around Nairobi estate roads back when Maradona was the big name in football. Plastic bags were not the standard fare in the 70s and 80s. Supermarkets packed sugar in brown bags, chips was served on square strips of plain paper and meat was wrapped in newspaper. Hence the phrase, “Gazeti ni ya kufunga nyama”.
Goods made out of plastic were cheap and brittle. Most products in the market were built to last. Durability was the mark of quality. It was normal for clothes to be handed down and repurposed. Repair shops existed for stuff that needed fixing. The jua kali industry was the home of reuse and recycle. Akala sandals made out of old car tires a fashion statement. People managed their own trash like villagers and planted vegetable gardens in allotments.
Somewhere in the early 90s, these basic sensibilities were swept away by the age of convenience and the arrival of the disposable culture. Time saving solutions became the undercurrent of convenience. We began to get stuff on the go, plastic substitutes to throw away after single use. Even our relationships were treated with the same attitude. In our new world of disposable partners and fair weather friends, people and things were to be used and dumped.
I think back to when this fickle attitudes entered our society and come to the rapid conclusion that it coincided with the rise of plastic products in the market. In last 20 years, plastic has steadily occupied a central position in our lives and its choking the life out of the natural environment and killing our waters. At this steady rate of pollution, by 2050, they will be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
Therefore when the Kenyan government declared a ban on plastic carrier bags, that commenced on the 28th August, Kenyans panicked. Possession of a plastic bag could land one a two year stint in jail or a 4 million shilling fine. It was safer to embezzle public funds.
Rumours filtered through the social networks that police were stopping motorists to search cars for plastic bags. Kenyans started painting scenarios of increased plastic arrests, conducted by the ever resourceful city council and police officers fleecing ignorant citizens with threats of incarceration. Broke Kenyans would land in jail for plastic crimes and entire cell blocks would be packed with plastic offenders.
But there is a silver lining. The open war on the plastic carrier bag has evoked some sort of environmental consciousness. The sight of plastic bags strewn all over roadsides, stacked up to the size of little mountains in landfills and clogging water ways is something everyone can see. The plastic bag for all its convenience has created a pollution crisis that we have all played a part in. Read about the Great Pacific Garbage patch, just one the many marine trash vortex islands of plastic debris the size of East Africa, swirling in our oceans.
The utility cycle of a plastic bag is under 20 minutes. Yet takes 100s of years to decompose. It may break down into small parts but plastic is here to stay. Basically, all the plastic bag carriers that were ever used or produced in Kenya are still around as a permanent eye sore.
The irony is, while it is illegal to use a plastic carrier bag we can still drink all the plastic bottled water that we want. That is the very definition of plastic change and in keeping with the Kenyan characteristic of cosmetic solutions to serious problems. But before I get self righteous and preach myself hoarse about saving the planet, I decided to examine my plastic footprint. Change starts with me, right?
I soon realized that I was a plastic hoarder. The amount of plastic in the house was disturbing. From my new toothbrush to my disposable razors. Products in my bathroom were all packed in plastic. I opened my fridge and the bulk of everything that we eat or use in the kitchen is either packaged or wrapped in plastic. I even had a plastic bag, full of plastic bags under the sink. I was generating about a wheelbarrow full of plastic waste every month. Yet, I considered myself an environmental conscious, tree hugging citizen who quoted Wangari Maathai frequently.
My little actions and purchasing decisions were playing a part in a large pollution crisis that I was refusing to acknowledge. It was too inconvenient to even contemplate a plastic free existence. I was unaware of the plastic I innocently trafficked into my house on a daily basis adding up to my waste pile. I was not trying hard enough to avoid disposable plastic. Simple things like saying no to plastic straws and bottled water.
Therefore, the ban on the plastic carrier bag serves as an opportunity for reflection and personal change. We have lost touch with the interconnectedness between our personal actions and the natural environment. We might pretend to be blissfully ignorant of the extent of the plastic pollution and conveniently blame the government for snoozing on the job. Eventually all the harm that we do to nature in terms of plastic pollution will create consequences that will walk up the food chain to choke life out of humans. The greater tragedy is that we are leaving behind a trash filled country for a generation who played no part in creating the mess that they will have to contend with.
I fall back on Wangari Maathai’s timeless advice, “It is the little things citizens do that make a difference”.
My little thing is to drop my attachment to plastic.
Picture courtesy of Sarah Elliot,