Kenya Adjusts to Life Without Plastic Bags

CC BY 2.0. velkr0

No more plastic bags means a return to old-fashioned ways of packaging and carrying goods -- not necessarily a bad thing!

It has been one month since Kenya enacted the world's strictest ban on plastic bags. It took ten years and three attempts to pass the legislation, but as of August 28, people could be punished for carrying, manufacturing and importing plastic bags. Fines range from $19,000 to $38,000, with possible four-year jail terms. All travellers are required to leave their plastic bags at the airport and residents are encouraged to drop off old bags at local grocery stores for collection.

The ban is highly ambitious for a country that used to hand out 100 million plastic bags a year. But as pollution piled up, officials realized something more drastic needed to be done. Plastic bags litter every Kenyan roadway, clog sewers and streams, and damage soil and water sources. Even animals eat them, according to the Guardian:

"In Nairobi’s slaughterhouses, some cows destined for human consumption had 20 bags removed from their stomachs. 'This is something we didn’t get 10 years ago but now it’s almost on a daily basis,' said county vet Mbuthi Kinyanjui as he watched men in bloodied white uniforms scoop sodden plastic bags from the stomachs of cow carcasses."

As the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources stated in a press release, the ban's purpose is to avoid the following bag-related problems:

1. The inability of plastic bags to decompose and thus affecting soil quality
2. The littering of such bags at various parts of the country
3. The blockage of sewerage and water drainage infrastructure causing floods during the raining season
4. Damage of ecosystems and biodiversity due to plastics bags
5. Death of animals after consuming plastic material
6. Endangering human health when used for packaging food in particular hot food
7. Poisonous gaseous and when used as fuel to light charcoal
8. Air pollution when disposed by burning in open air

Now Kenyans must come up with alternatives. Supermarket chains are offering cloth bags. Market sellers are tying strings around vegetables, wrapping items in banana leaves, and delivering food in spare shoe boxes and other containers. It is a tough adjustment, according to local newspaper The Star, which reports some people still using bags a month later, particularly water and juice sellers, who've had difficulty finding alternative packaging for holding their bottles.

Some Kenyans are outraged by the ban because it gives "security forces more opportunity to extort residents in a country where police bribery is already a problem" (via Quartz).

But, as the New York Times wrote when the ban first came into effect, official measures are effective. Whether it's an all-out ban, limitations, or fees for use, such actions have been proven to reduce plastic bag use -- something that absolutely must happen.