Kenya Enacts World's Toughest Plastic Bag Ban

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While numerous African countries have fully or partially outlawed plastic shopping bags, a long-time-coming bag ban in Kenya carries notably harsh penalties for producing or supplying this ubiquitous form of pollution. . (Photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

Deforestation. Political corruption. Human rights violations. Income inequality. Poaching. Water scarcity and poor sanitation.

Kenya continues to face a slew of formidable challenges as the economy of this East African nation — home to upwards of 48 million people, most of them living in deep poverty — grows at a furious clip. But none of these large-scale issues have been subject to a crackdown quite like the manufacture, distribution and use of plastic shopping bags.

Following a 10-year, three-try crusade to put the kibosh on plastic bags once and for all, a tough-as-nails ban on landfill-clogging throwaway carriers took effect earlier this week after being announced in March. The United Nations estimates that more than 100 million single-use bags are used and discarded in Kenya every year.

While a number of African countries including Rwanda, Morocco, Mali, Cameroon and Ethiopia have banned or partially banned plastic bags, the bag ban in Kenya is noted for being rather, well, harsh.

As reported by the New York Times, manufacturing or importing plastic shopping bags in Kenya come with fines ranging from $19,000 to $38,000 or a four-year stint in prison. What's more, travelers coming into Kenya must surrender plastic duty-free bags before being admitted through major airports. Even plastic garbage bags are being yanked from the shelves of Kenyan retailers.

Reuters calls the ban on single-use shopping bags the "world's toughest law aimed at reducing plastic pollution."

There's zero argument that limiting access to single-use shopping bags — an ecological scourge if there ever was one — is a good thing. But in impoverished areas of Kenya, where alternatives to something so cheap and ubiquitous can be few and far between, there are some legitimate concerns.

For example, in the sprawling slums surrounding major Kenyan cities such as Nairobi, plastic shopping bags double as so-called "flying toilets." That is, the bags are filled with human waste and flung as far away as possible, often into open ditches away from residential areas.

Of course, the solution to this would be to install proper toilets. And this is happening — but slowly and with some resistance. In areas still lacking access to safe and secure means of sanitation, flying toilets are seen as a preferable alternative to open defecation. And in impoverished settlements without toilets, a ban on plastic bags could worsen Kenya's sanitation crisis. (Biodegradable bags for human waste have been developed as a go-between until modern toilets become more widespread.)

Waste management officials have also voiced concerns about the logistics of collecting rubbish now that plastic bags are effectively outlawed.

Pigs traversing a mountain of plastic bag waste outside of Nairobi, Kenya
Pigs traversing a mountain of plastic bag waste in Kenya. (Photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

Caught plastic-handed

Per the New York Times, major Kenyan retailers will be given several months to phase out plastic bags and switch to cloth and paper alternatives. Totes made from sisal fiber are also being touted as a feasible alternative — the plant, native to Mexico and used to make a variety of consumer goods ranging from footwear to carpeting, is grown in abundance in Kenya and neighboring Tanzania.

Still, critics of the ban worry that Kenyan shoppers have become so reliant on plastic bags that a switch simply won't stick. "The knock-on effects will be very severe," Samuel Matonda, a spokesman for the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, explains to Reuters. "It will even affect the women who sell vegetables in the market — how will their customers carry their shopping home?"

Matonda notes that upwards of 6,000 people will lose their jobs due to the ban and 176 bag producers will be forced to shutter. Many of these manufacturers just don't produce single-use plastic carrier bags for domestic use but for the entire African Great Lakes region, which includes Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Proponents of the ban insist that consumers will indeed adjust, albeit a bit slowly at first, to a new reality where plastic shopping bags are not the norm.

Government officials are also quick to offer reassurances that manufacturers and suppliers will serve as the primary emphasis of enforcement even though police are permitted to go after anyone as the new law prohibits possession as well.

"Ordinary wananchi will not be harmed," environment minister Judy Wakhungu tells Reuters, referring to the Kiswahili term for "ordinary person." For now, those nabbed using a plastic shopping bag will have it confiscated, although arrests aren't out of the question in the future.

A cow sniffing through plastic bag waste outside of Nairobi, Kenya
A cow grazing through plastic bag waste outside of Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

Plastic bags: An inedible new part of the food chain

In addition to forming mountains of non-biodegradable rubbish, throwaway plastic bags clog Kenyan waterways and eventually drift to the Indian Ocean where they become perilous to a variety of marine life including seabirds, dolphins and turtles, which mistake the bags for food.

The U.N. estimates that at current rates there will be more plastic waste in the oceans than fish by the year 2050.

"Kenya is taking decisive action to remove an ugly stain on its outstanding natural beauty," said Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment in a media statement published in March. "Plastic waste also causes immeasurable damage to fragile ecosystems — both on land and at sea — and this decision is a major breakthrough in our global effort to turn the tide on plastic."

On land, plastic bag waste is wreaking particular havoc on Kenyan livestock operations given that cattle often graze on pastures strewn with bag waste. Many cows inevitably ingest the bags, making for a more precarious situation when it comes time for them to be processed for meat consumption. Veterinarian Mbuthi Kinyanjui tells Reuters that single cows in Nairobi slaughterhouses have had up to 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," he says.

Noting that plastic bags take between 20 and 1,000 years to biodegrade, Wakhungu tells the BBC that they "now constitute the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya. This has become our environmental nightmare that we must defeat by all means."

Outside of Africa, a growing number of countries ranging from China to France to Scotland also have plastic shopping bag bans on the books. In some countries, plastic shopping bags are still readily available but subject to a small fee, which is meant to discourage consumers from using them and to further promote reusable bags.

The United States is more of a mixed bag, so to speak, when it comes to bag bans.

Officials in some cities, states, and municipalities have enthusiastically embraced them while others have actively resisted them. As dumb as it is, some states, such as Michigan and Indiana under the leadership of now-Vice President Mike Pence, have gone as far as banning plastic bag bans. In February, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was greeted with duly deserved criticism when he blocked a law that would have ushered in a 5-cent plastic bag fee in the Big Apple.