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Africa Begins Banning Plastic Bags in Bid to Tackle Waste Problem

The United Nations estimates that only 10 percent of the rubbish in Africa makes it to dumps, with the rest left to rot in communities, or burned in acrid bonfires. As Africans increasingly live in cities, waste management has become a real development problem. But as Sarah Simpson tells us, Nigeria and Kenya are working toward a more permanent solution that includes an outright ban on one of the main offenders, the common plastic bag.

It is Sanitation Day in Lagos. In run-down Obalende district, everyone is out fulfilling their legal duties: street sweeping, washing and cleaning. Favour Kadiri is scooping plastic bags out of her blocked gutter, one of the main jobs on Sanitation Day.

"One day, the last Saturday of the month, we all come out to clean. Everybody must do it," said Kadiri. "We know it is good for us to make our surrounding clean. So we have to do it, we do not have to leave it."

Across Africa, people are increasingly living in cities, where disposing of non-degradable waste like plastic bags is a growing headache.

In East Africa, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have passed laws banning or restricting the use of plastic grocery bags. By the end of the year, similar legislation is expected to come in to force in Kenya, too.

Environmentalist with Kenya's prominent Greenbelt Movement, Joseph Gondi, successfully petitioned for a ban on light weight plastic bags and a levy on non-degradable packaging. From the bird-filled garden of his office, he says the legislation will improve Kenyans' environment and health.

"All these plastic bags have really caused a lot of environmental and health problems," he said. "So we wanted them banned so that people now can begin thinking, can get sensitized on, 'We have a problem, we need to do something'."

Downtown Nairobi has been significantly cleaned up in recent years. But slum areas like Kibera, where most of the cities' residents live, remain choked with plastic refuse. Plastic bags block sewage channels, creating pools of water where mosquitoes breed and spread malaria. Cholera and typhoid are also a risk.

Michael Mutuku works at a small general goods store. He thinks that if Kenyans understand the negative impact of plastic waste in spreading illness and disease, they will welcome the ban and levies even though it will make some plastic-wrapped goods more expensive.

"People, they do not know about the impact of those bags, but if they are given awareness then they have to change," said Mutuku.

An awareness campaign is already under way with a focus on re-educating school kids, and the message is getting out, say campaigners.

In some districts of Lagos, Nigeria, state authorities and local charities are also carrying out their own environmental awareness campaign.

Nojeem Murtala works for the sanitation department and cruises the streets of Obalende on Sanitation Day. From a loudspeaker on the top of his van he urges residents in Pidgin English to take part in the clean up.

"When your environment is clean…. Mosquito everything, fly, they disturb you…..Make now try, clean everywhere, I beg….. !"

If the high-volume encouragement does not work, Murtala and his associates pile rubbish in front of dirty houses and call the occupiers into the street to shame them.

"We are trying to expose them - most of them do not use to do it. That is why we are exposing them," said Murtala.

If that does not work, Murtala can involve stick-wielding police to enforce a clean up. But it rarely comes to that. Since launching their initiative in April, residents agree Obalende is much tidier.

But many think that Sanitation Day is not enough.

Lawyer Uche Ezechukwuwho lives near Lagos' largest landfill site, which over flows with stinking non-degradable plastics, says Nigeria needs to do more to improve waste management.

"Waste management in Lagos State is a big problem to the state," said Ezechukwuwho. "Not only the state but Nigeria as a nation. We are having serious problems managing waste."

As some authorities in Africa step up their efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags, they are getting support from other areas of the world. The Bangladeshi capital Dhaka banned plastic bags in 2002 and a number of cities in Britain are also taking measures to outlaw them.