Kenya Cracks Down On Waste With World's Toughest Plastic Bag Ban

While some cities in the United States have initiated a plastic bag tax, Kenya is tackling pollution with $40,000 fines and potential jail time.

A boy stands in a polluted stream in a poor slum surrounded by trash and poorly constructed buildings.

Countries around the world have passed laws to deal with the production of plastic waste, in particular the everyday use of plastic bags. Ireland, Germany, and Denmark are just a few of the nations that have plastic bag taxes in place, and China, Australia, and Bangladesh are among the over 40 governments that have banned plastic bags altogether.

On Monday, Kenya joined the ranks of countries that have outlawed single use plastic bags, but also far surpassed its predecessors in tone.

Those in Kenya who make, sell, or use plastic bags risk a maximum of four years jail time or a phenomenal fine of approximately $40,000, reported The Guardian. While authorities have said that manufacturers and storefronts will be the key targets of the ban, the legislation empowers law enforcement to detain even those just using plastic bags.

The extreme punishments and the potential impact the law will have on Kenya's impoverished communities has garnered opposition of the ban, and it took three separate attempts over the span of 10 years for it to finally pass.

"The knock-on effects will be very severe,” Samuel Matonda of the Kenyan Association of Manufacturers told The Guardian. “It will even affect the women who sell vegetables in the market – how will their customers carry their shopping home?”

Matonda said he is also concerned over the negative impact the law will have on the nation's booming plastic bag industry, as approximately 176 companies will be forced to close their factories and fire tens of thousands of employees.

"It may look very fashionable in international circles," Kenneth Okoth, who represents the notoriously polluted and devastatingly poor Nairobi slum of Kibera in parliament, told NPR. "But in reality, in a place like Kibera, we still need those plastics."

Running water and outhouses are scarce in Kibera, so many residents rely on plastic bags, nicknamed "flying toilets." Others use the bags to transport everyday necessities, and some people in the area have also built livelihoods out of cleaning and selling plastic bags for reuse.

"It's not the plastic's fault," Okoth explained. "It's a lack of a system to collect the plastic and reuse it and make a value chain out of it beyond that first usage."

However, proponents of the law see any negative consequences as simply a matter of transition, and supermarket chains are already selling cloth bags. Furthermore, the positive impact the prohibition of plastic bags will have on the environment cannot be underestimated.

"It is a toxin that we must get rid of," Judi Wakhungu, Kenya's Cabinet secretary for the environment, told reporters for the Star Kenya. "It's affecting our water. It's affecting our livestock and, even worse, we are ingesting this as human beings."

Habib El-Habr, who works in Kenya's United Nations environment program, told The Guardian it takes between 500 and 1,000 years for plastic bags to disintegrate.

In the meantime, they fill the stomachs of land animals, including those humans eat, and contaminate the planet's oceans, killing sea creatures in horrific ways.

“If we continue like this, by 2050, we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish,” he remarked.

Much of the world has become so reliant on plastic that any transition to more compostable and sustainable materials will be a challenging one. Okoth and Matonda are wise to be wary of the new law's potential to make things more difficult for already vulnerable populations, however the planet simply cannot afford more waste or pollution.

Any successful human future hinges on our species' ability to become stewards of Earth rather than its abusers, and governments like Kenya's must work to combat dangerous habits of industry while also ensuring that people do not become collateral to progress. 

Banner and thumbnail credit: Wikimedia Commons user genvessel

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