Plastic makes up a quarter of 60,000 tonnes of waste produced annually in Kenya according to various studies. Even more alarming is the fact that the annual average particular matter levels of the air of Kenyan cities are well above the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines which has made the lifespan of most Kenyans shorter than that of their peers. Air pollution has been caused by effluence and toxins from industries, emission of smoke and gas by vehicles and fuel wood.
This has put the environment on a precarious position at a time when climate change is taking a toll on all facets of the economy. Air pollution which has reached epidemic proportions in the country is threatening livelihoods and has been blamed for emerging diseases like cancer.
A study by Health Link Africa notes that air pollution in Kenya is responsible for up to 5,000 deaths annually.
According to Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants Africa's children suffer long term effects from indoor pollution caused by cooking methods that use biomass. The effect on economic is even startling. A study by the University of Nairobi also indicated that the annual economic loss in Kenya due to vehicle emissions is $1.3 billion.
The situation is even grimmer continentally and globally. It is against this backdrop that the first of its kind high delegation meeting took place in Nairobi bringing together over 1200 global leaders including heads of states and Ministers early this year. The meeting dubbed United Nations Environment Assembly, UNEA, was the highest-level U.N. body ever convened on the environment.
The discussion focused on worsening air quality in African cities, as a result of increasing population, urbanization and motorization, and on sustainable development. Participants throughout the week will discuss a new post-2015 development agenda to succeed the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The Goals, agreed by world leaders at a UN summit in 2000, aim to slash extreme hunger and poverty, cut maternal and infant mortality, combat disease and provide access to universal education and health care, all by the end of 2015 even as it emerges that most of the countries wont meet the set deadlines.
The changing environment — including climate change, pollution, land degradation and access to water— shows that the world's economy needs to be reinvented or progress will suffer, Steiner said.
Within East Africa, UNEP is assisting Kenya and Uganda to ensure vehicles on their roads are not polluting their environment.
Plastic bags have been another eyesore that has threatened livestock, lives and the environment. More than 48 million thin plastic bags are produced in Kenya each year, and production is increasing to meet consumer demand. According to research done by NEMA and the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) 100 million plastic bags are handed out annually in Kenya by supermarkets alone, the vast majority destined to end up in the environment, clogging sewers and drains, polluting soil, posing a danger to marine life and causing death to livestock when inadvertently consumed.
Pieces of these plastic bags mix with soil and prevent rainwater from soaking into the ground, contributing to the formation of standing pools of water, the breeding ground for all manner of waterborne diseases. . Discarded bags fill up with rainwater and become perfect breeding grounds for malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Malaria is Africa's most deadly infectious disease in children, and over 50 percent of all hospital visits in some areas are malaria-related.
Animals can also choke to death on plastic bags, mistaking them for food, particularly when they carry food residues or the movement of water animates them. Animals that swallow plastic bags may starve to death or die from infection as they may not be able to digest real food.
According to experts the practice of burning plastic to dispose of it is not not a viable solution. The plastics contain substances which when burned release toxic chemicals, including dioxins, which have been linked with cancer. Plastic bags take between 20 and 1,000 years to decompose.
Even though resistance has been met on slapping a ban on plastic bags in the country, a charge on use of plastic bags has worked in other countries and greatly contributed to environmental conservation.
In 2002, Ireland imposed a 15-euro cent levy or surcharge on plastic bags provided by stores and shops. It is estimated that this has reduced the use of plastic bags by 90 per cent. The revenue raised goes to an Environmental Fund which plans to spend 35 million euros on recycling centres. The introduction of the so called PlasTax scheme has been backed up by public awareness campaigns.
In Australia, the retailer IKEA put a 10 cent charge on its plastic bags while also providing a re-usable alternative. It reports a 97 per cent drop in the use of plastic bags. Rwanda has banned plastics less than 100 microns thick and backed this up with public awareness campaigns. The black plastic bag has disappeared from Kigali.
In 2003 South Africa banned plastic bags thinner than 30 microns and introduced a plastics levy some of which goes to a plastic bag recycling company. It has witnessed a decrease in bag litter, a reduction in the manufacture of plastic bags with some layoffs and a growth in alternatives such as canvass bags.