Is the “Somali flower” threatened with extinction?

Do you know what a „Somali flower“ is? It describes shreds of plastic bags of various colours stuck in a thorn bush. It might as well be called a „Kenian flower“. The country is drowning in plastic. It’s bad for tourism, it’s bad for the environment, and it’s bad for us. It’s about time to do something about this.

What’s the story?

On the 15th of March this year, Environment and Natural Resources Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu announced the ban of plastic bags. The ban includes the importation, manufacture and use of plastic bags with and without handles. Is this ban just a more or less subtle campaign stunt, given that the implementation date is after the August 8 General Election? Or is there perhaps hope that, unlike the three previous attempts in 2005, 2007 and 2011, this time the ban will actually have an impact? Tanzania and Rwanda have banned plastic bags (Kigali has successfully implemented a total ban on polythene bags since 2006) and called for the total prohibition of them in East Africa, so lets hope it will be enforced in Kenya as well.

plastic in rivers2

credit: J. Kolondo

Clearly, Nairobi is literally drowning in plastic waste. Plastic bags are everywhere: in rivers, in the trees, in the National Park. It is estimated that over  24 million plastic bags are used monthly, half of which end up in the solid waste mainstream. Many people can’t afford buying their own bags, so everyone uses plastic bags, given they are for free. Most of the plastic bags produced in Kenya are less than 15 microns in strength. This means that they cannot be recycled. They are not biodegradable and, when exposed to light, break down to ever smaller plastic pieces (so-called microplastics).



plastic burning

credit: Joshua Kolondo

Due to poor or non existing waste management they end up in the environment. Standard waste management is a devolved function which means it is each county that is responsible for its solid waste management and managing its dumpsites (Judy Wakhungu, 2017). Only a few posh neighborhoods are provided with an actual waste management solution, meaning plastic bags are disposed of in waste dumps.  People in rural areas, on the other hand, do not have a collection facility. Most of the litter there ends up being thrown in the manure pit and, if edible, fed to the animals. All the other stuff gets burnt, paying little attention to the fact that the burning of waste is actually unlawful. Burning plastics contributes to many toxic compounds in the air.

Why are plastic bags an environmental problem?

  • Plastic bags are created using fossil fuels and also require vast amounts of water and energy in order to have them manufactured and shipped.
  • They can increase the risk of flooding. Because they never break down completely, plastic bags can clog storm drains and other areas which can eventually cause severe flooding.
  • Wangari Maathai, the former Assistant Minister for Environment in Kenya and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, linked plastic bag litter with Malaria. The bags when discarded, can fill with rain water offering ideal and new breeding grounds for malaria carrying mosquitoes.
  • Land animals such goats and cows also ingest them while grazing and risk death through choking.
  • They are washed away into the seas and other water bodies. Birds and fish eat these plastic peaces and choke and being strangled
  • Some of its ingredients such as biosphenol-A and Phthalates have been proved to cause cancer, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments
  • They are very slowly degraded to micro plastics

What are microplastics?

Microplastics have different origin. Primary sources include the colored dots in toothpaste and face wash designed to make a product look like it will polish your teeth or skin. Another primary sources are the fires being released from washing synthetic clothes. Secondary sources of microplastics include fibres or fragments resulting from the breakdown of larger plastic items like plastic bags, food and rink packaging. These are believed to be the main origin of most microplastics in the environment  although our knowledge about the relative importance of various inputs is incomplete.

Microplastics are so small that they can only be identified with a microscope (normally 1nm < 5mm). Many studies in Europe found microplastics in various environmental media like water, sediment as well as in the gut of fish, mussles, shellfish, birds and other freshwater and marine animals. For the first time researchers from Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK showed in a brilliant short movie that zooplankton actually feeds on plastic and accumulates plastic in their bodies. This  suggests that microplastcis can accumulate in the food chain, meaning  concentrations can increase from a tiny organsim like zooplankton to a fish lying on your plate to eat. However only one single study  in whole East Africa, done by researchers from Roskilde University and Sokoine University of Agriculture (Tanzania), showed microplastics in the gut of Nile perch and Nile tilapia in Lake Victoria.


This has major implications for the food safety of many Africans especially those whose food security rely mainly on fish comsumption. Very often small fishes are consumed as a whole including intestines, which may contain microplastic concentrations. The micro plastics themselves contain substances which could cause allergies, cancer, More studies need to be done in Kenya to assess the pollution status of micro plastics in freshwaters in order to support the ban of plastic bans.


How can we manage the microplastic pollution

Because of their small size it is very difficult to remove microplastics from the environment. This means the most effective measure is to decrease or even stop the input of these plastics (find more info under “Information for consumers”)

Since the fragmentation of plastic bags is believed to be the major source of micro plastics it is a very good idea to ban plastic bags. 

However, even if we were able to completely stop inputs of plastics to the environment, the quantity of micro- plastics would likely increase because of fragmentation of larger plastic items already in the environment.

The decision has ruffled a few feathers

Obviously the approximately 100-150 plastic bag manufacturers is against the ban. The Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) warned  the ban on plastic bags will lead to a loss of about 60,000 jobs directly and they were asking for a better waste management instead of a total ban. This is an exaggeration since these factories are producing many other things apart from plastic bags. Th ban will hardly influence the amount of jobs. One would also wonder where these jobs are resident and how many people are actually involved.  It is  possible that there will be more job opportunities created by producing alternative bags ( see under consumer information) which will be spread to Kenyans of all ages throughout the country using the indigenous knowledge and practices resident in the Kenyan people.

“The challenge with plastics is not a production issue but a waste management and consumer behaviour issue. A ban that intends to enforce a sudden change in consumer behaviour will not succeed in the long run,” the manufacturers, through their lobby KAM said, citing South Africa as a country that has had to reverse a decision on a similar ban.

But also the informal sector of plastic recyclers, the ones  sorting and washing plastics along major roads and on waste dumps fearing of their income which could be up to Ksh 500 per day. However, they could also earn an income by producing alternative bags. Watch ktn news on this topic. 


Many consumers complaining about paying for bags now and not having the time to adjust to this decision.

“It’s a fair question for Kenyans to ask if the time to implement the ban is enough. But what is a reasonable time and when is the appropriate time when a discussion has been going on for 15 years or more? ” (Prof. Wakhungu, Environment Secretary Kenya, 2017)

Information for consumers 

How many of us go to the supermarket with our own shopping bags? How many of us weigh the vegetable and fruits without any additional plastic bag? How many of us look at the ingredient list when buying facial scrubs and other cosmetics?

The behaviours of citizens as consumers of goods and services are a major contributor to the accumulation of plastic. If everyone of us would not purchases any consumer goods such as plastic bags, plastic beverage containers, cosmetics and health care products that contain microbeads anymore would support the attempt of banning plastic bags as the first step. Ist up to us and our behaviour including everyday activities at home and work.

Microbeads in cosmetics

A single cleansing product can contain as many as 360,000 microbeads, while natural, biodegradable alternatives include jojoba beads, apricot kernels, ground nutshells and salt. Many beauty brands have already stopped using microplastics or committed to do so, but only a few countries implemented a ban on it. This means
that many cosmetics still contain these microbeads. Beat the Bead campaign has a free smartphone app that scans a product’s barcode for plastics, while and Fauna & Flora International’s Good Scrub Guide is a good source of up-to-date information.

If you’re unsure, check the label and avoid products containing polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and nylon.


Alternatives to plastic bags

Getting an alternative for the polythene bag is not difficult. In our archives of indigenous practices when the polythene bag had not been invented, we used bags made from diverse materials to carry our goods. Paper bags, Canvas bags, Jute bags, hand woven bags all of these beautiful bags are available already. Just check out the markets and the little store along the road.

Canvas bags

jute bagsCanvas is usually made of cotton or linen. It is also popularly used by artists as a painting surface showing various designs tailored to Kenya.


Jute bags

shopping bag 1

Jute is a long, soft, shiny vegetable fiber that can be spun into coarse, strong threads. Kenyan sisal plants have similar features and played a major economic role before the emergence of polythene bags.Communities have unique intricate weaving patterns and dyes which make these bags an admirable piece of art. Due to plastic ban may be Kenyan Kiondo will be revived. The women who have a weaving talent will have a new employment front to engage in. Hundreds of women groups throughout the country will be engaged in weaving Kiondo.

Water hyacinth bags

hyacinth bag


Water hyacinth an invasive weed causing lots of problems in Kenyan inland water contains fibre that is used to make diverse items including bags. Innovative artisans make the bags in various sizes and styles. Please contact Takawiri Enterprises for size and price. Hence Kenya has substantial supply of water hyacinth it could be used to make bags as alternatives for the polythene bags.

Alternative to plastic bottles

you have to look hard for water filled in glass bottles. Hopefully soon there will be more options than the one from Aquamist.

Information for policy makers

  • Promoting the manufacturing of alternative bags by using indigenous knowledge, as the weaving of bags out of sisal plants or water hyacinth.
  • Supporting the ban of plastic bags with a proper waste management plan for all areas in Kenya
  • Targeting the ban of primary packaging material
  • Targeting the ban/ reduction of plastic bottles and introduce glass bottles

Information for researchers

In general the body of knowledge on the accumulation and effects of plastics in freshwater and terrestrial systems is much less than in marine systems. We need to know more about our status in terms of micopollutants in our food, especially in areas where livelihood depends mainly on fish consumption.  Only one single study  in whole East Africa, done by researchers from Roskilde University and Sokoine University of Agriculture (Tanzania), showed microplastics in the gut of Nile perch and Nile tilapia in Lake Victoria. More studies need to be done to analyze micropllutants in water, sediment and biota (like fish). However, one needs to be aware that the techniques are very expensive (since they most of the time involve eletronmicroscope) generally time consuming and unable to identify all particles (Galgani et al., 2013). Challenges of detecting microplastics include:

  • the ability to capture plastic particles from a sample of water or sediment;
  • separating the plastic fragments from other particles in the sample; and
  • identifying the types of plastics present

I refer to a review on microplastics in freshwater systems and to an overview of analytical approaches to detect micro plastics in the environment.

We still have a poor understanding of degradation rates and of fragmentation of plastic bags, and this is of concern because the spread and abundance of microplastics is increasing. We need more studies on the fate of macro- and microplastics.

Our water bodies are heavily polluted with organic chemicals like pesticides and Persistent Organic Pollutants. Organic chemicals like to bind on these tiny plastic particles so the uptake of organic chemicals is increasing. However its still a debate if these chemicals are released in the body and actually increase the concentration in the tissue. We need studies looking at the dynamic of micropllutants, binding on microplastic, accumualting in organisms and releasing in bodies.

Unfortunately current studies only document microplastics in the gut and intestinal tract of fish, highlighting the need for information on contamination of other tissues. This is particularly true for regions with high consumption rates of seafood, as in some areas of Kenya.

Please visit our training centre for scientific courses on micro plastic exposure and effect. 









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