Ban on plastic bags could stop “flying toilets” in Kenya’s slums

Photo of rubbish and flying toilets piling up in the Nairobi river. Photo from Clean Up Kenya.
Photo of rubbish and flying toilets piling up in the Nairobi river. Photo from Clean Up Kenya.

A new law banning the sale and use of plastic bags came into effect in Kenya on August 28. But the ban, which has been praised by environmental activists, could make life difficult for people living in slums where plastic bags are used as toilets. People use the bags, known locally as “flying toilets”, because they either don’t have access to latrines, or can't afford to pay for public toilets.

The government hopes that the law will reduce pollution and damage to wildlife and ecosystems, and had asked supermarkets that provide plastic bags to hand in all of their remaining stock before the law came into effect.

The punishment for flouting the new law can be imprisonment for up to two years, or a fine of up to four million Kenya shillings [32,000 euros].

Photo from Clean Up Kenya.

Kenya is by no means the first country to introduce a ban on plastic bags, with other countries such as Morocco, China, and Germany either imposing a charge on them, partially banning them, or banning them outright.

Plastic pollution killing marine wildlife

Plastic pollution is a problem that Kenya has been grappling with for years. Plastic enters the marine ecosystem, strangling or suffocating marine wildlife, and has even been found in the stomachs of cows destined for the slaughterhouse. Around urban areas, rivers are choked with plastic and rubbish. In slums like Kibera in Nairobi, the largest urban slum in Africa, piles of plastic bags filled with urine and faeces plug the Nairobi river.

However, the move will also affect jobs in the region. The Kenyan Association of Manufacturers protested against the strict ban, saying that it would cost Kenya tens of thousands of jobs.

“You use the bag to relieve yourself, and then you close it and throw it towards the river”

Our Observer Daniel Otundo grew up in Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa . He tells how these “flying toilets” are a part of everyday life.

Living in Kibera is not easy. It’s getting bigger and bigger, and the bigger the population, the more the pollution. People are building more mud houses without actually building sanitation blocks. So people use what we call flying toilets. You use a bag as a place to relieve yourself, then you close the bag and wait until it’s dark, around 9 or 10pm, then throw it to the side of the river, anywhere, just far away from your home. Which of course is not very environmentally friendly. People don’t care. They don’t think about hygiene.

Photo from the Ban Plastics campaign.

People also use plastic containers, previously used to store cooking fat or other things. They're used as home toilets and then dumped somewhere away from the home after dark. People will use those more now. However, plastic bags are still accessible, so people are still using those and just ignoring the ban. The people imposing the ban are yet to provide alternatives to people.

There are mixed reactions. Generally everyone welcomes the move, but are not happy with the way it has been implemented. Small business people and people who worked in plastic factories are the ones mostly affected.

“No one cleans up rubbish in the slums”

David Machio is a Kenyan who lives in Nairobi and has been to the Kibera slum many times.

If you look at Kibera you wonder how human beings can survive in these conditions. It is dirty, there is plastic everywhere, piles of flying toilets and rubbish. No one comes to clear up the rubbish in the slums. The government tried to finish building toilets, but because of political problems it never happened. The slum areas are in an opposition stronghold, so the government isn’t really concerned with what happens there. A lot of NGOs are trying to help, but they can only do so much.

There are not enough toilets and the ones there are you have to pay to use them. The only people who use the toilets are people who are there to do business in the area – the locals don’t use them. The toilets are so dirty, as well. The money [to use them] is meant to pay for their cleaning, but because of corruption people just pocket the money, so they don’t have the hygienic standard one would expect of a public toilet. Sometimes they charge you for a small piece of toilet paper too, so most people don’t even use toilet paper. The other problem with the toilets is that they open in the morning and close in the evening – so what do people do at night if they want to relieve themselves?

It’s very difficult for them to stop using plastic bags because they have no other option.

Photo from Clean Up Kenya.

I agree with the plastic bag ban, I think it is taking us in the right direction. We are just waiting to see how it will be enforced. People are worrying that if they are found walking with a plastic bag they will be arrested. Or that corrupt officers will use it as an excuse to arrest people. But what other choice do people have?