Do better: a challenge to plastic polluters from the global north

Kenyan environmental activist Kevin Mtai calls on consumers and companies in the global north to stop polluting his country – and to get their own houses in order

My country, Kenya, is known for its beauty, boasting white sand beaches, soaring mountains and vast savannahs. Unfortunately, it is also literally choking in plastic.

Single-use bottles, food packaging and other plastic items are now found throughout virtually every part of Kenya today. In the capital, fish in the Nairobi River have long been replaced by plastic litter.

It is in the air, plastic is burnt as a method of disposal or for a cheap source of heat, causing illnesses such as asthma to thousands. Some 37 million items of junk plastic clothing is dumped in Kenya annually, flooding waterways and polluting the landscape.

Why is it such a problem?

Kenya has only rudimentary waste disposal services and no large scale recycling system.

Instead, it relies on waste pickers to do much of the collecting and sorting. It provides a meagre income and comes with the danger of injury and illness from contact with the waste, including HIV.

But the biggest challenge is from corporations from the global north. Kenya, like many African countries, has a young, growing population. It’s an enticing market for those selling fast moving consumer goods.

And worse, big polluters like Coca-Cola are stripping our country of the refill and reuse infrastructure that was once normal and instead heavily marketing single-use plastics.

Unfortunately, Coca-Cola, like many of these goods almost always come wrapped in plastic – or made entirely of it. By their very design they are to be used once and thrown away.

So while these companies are happy to take profits from our young people now, they seem less interested in whether we will have a healthy future. Some of us here in Kenya have had enough. We are starting to push back at the plastic tide swamping us.

In 2017 Kenya banned single use plastic bags. It unfortunately didn’t include many other types of plastic packaging, but it was a start. In 2020, single-use items were banned from protected areas such as parks and forests.

At a grass roots level, my peers and I are focusing on educating the next generation. By using the power of sport to engage people, I’ve visited 30 schools and reached more than 10,000 students to talk about the impact of plastic pollution.

When we hold a football competition, single-use bottles are banned. We ask participants to bring a reusable drinking bottle and we have large water containers that they can refill from.

I grew up in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. At a young age I watched my mother fall sick from contaminated drinking water and, sadly, pass away. I know that the answer to these environmental problems is literally life or death.

But I can’t do it alone. And nor should I.

So I challenge those corporations operating in Kenya, and the global north in general, to do better. To be more creative in how they innovate and market products here in Africa. To put action behind their “long-term strategies” and talking points about plastic reduction.

In Kenya we should be seeing more reusable and refillable products. Companies should take ownership of the full lifecycle of their products, including investing in their recycling and reuse. And these same companies should be investing in the education of our young people, instead of simply taking profits from them.

We all have a part to play. And I encourage you, reading this, to do as those Kenyan students do and choose to take a refillable water bottle the next time you leave the house.

After all, it may not be in your country that it ends up as litter, but in mine.

Small actions can make a difference. But big actions matter more and I call on the biggest polluters to take responsibility for the mess they are creating.


Kevin Mtai is an ambassador for World Refill Day 2023