Kenya introduces world's toughest laws against plastic bags: ignore the ban and you'll get four years in jail

Leading environmental champions and lobby groups praise the move, but manufacturers are worried

Scavengers carry empty sacks as they arrive to sort recyclable plastic materials at the Dandora dumping site on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya August 25, 2017. Picture taken August 25, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
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Kenya has become the latest country to ban plastic bags, with the toughest laws yet. The country now has a total ban on manufacturing, importing and using plastic bags and importers and manufacturers who do not comply face fines of up to 4 million Kenyan shillings — equivalent to $38,000 or Dh139,500 — or a four-year jail term.

Leading environmental champions and lobby groups, including Greenpeace and UN Environment, praised the move, terming it “a beacon of hope” in fostering an environmentally conscious society.

The anti-plastic drive became law on February 28 but allowed a six-month window for compliance. Kenya now joins Cameroon, Eritrea, Mauritania, Morocco, Tanzania and Bangladesh in a complete ban on plastic bags. Other nations in Africa and Asia have also imposed bans on plastic of a certain thickness in the last decade, but the laws are not always enforced. For example, Uganda banned the sale of lightweight plastic bags in 2007 and taxed thicker plastic bags at the punitive rate of 120 per cent but there has been little reduction in plastic bag usage. Other countries with a ban in place have seen a thriving black market develop for plastic bags.

However, no country has introduced a law as tough as Kenya's, which punishes offenders with prison.


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Environmental organisations have hailed Kenya's new law as exemplary.

"Pollution from throwaway plastic is an ecological and public health disaster, and we welcome the leadership that Kenya is taking on this," Erik Solheim, head of the Nairobi-based UN Environment told The National"UN Environment has worked with the Kenyan government and the plastics industry to transition from plastic bag usage and brought in experts from Uganda and Rwanda to share lessons on how others have implemented this change."

Kenya's National Environment Management Authority have installed collection centres in all major retail outlets around the country for people to dispose of their now illegal plastic bags.

David Ongare, of Kenya's National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) says the push to ban plastic bags started in 2007. "We have been holding meetings with the key stakeholders, including manufacturers, importers and retail shops," he told the National.

But the manufacturing industry called for "a middle ground" to stave off economic slowdown.


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"The manufacturers want a way forward, we want clarity on the implementation of the ban,” said Phyllis Wakiaga, chief executive of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. “Can we have a middle ground? We want clean environment and economic growth to go hand in hand.”

According to UN Environment, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans every year, where they not only become a health hazard and public nuisance but also affect marine life, fisheries and tourism. They also take 50 to 1,000 years to biodegrade, said Greenpeace Africa's executive director, Njeri Kabeberi, who advocates a return to traditional handwoven "kiondo" baskets.

Habib El Habr, coordinator for the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities (GPA) said plastic pollution is "one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time, harming wildlife through entanglement or ingestion, affecting air quality through burning and contributing to floods by clogging up drains”.

In recent years, huge numbers of plastic bags have been found in the stomachs of livestock being processed for human consumption in Nairobi’s abattoirs. Grazing cattle eat the bags and when it clogs up their system, they die from malnutrition.

“If this ban works, it will be a massive breakthrough for reducing plastic pollution which is causing huge damage to the planet. We hope other countries will also step up and take decisive action," Mr El Habr said.