Kenya has become the latest African country to ban the use of polythene plastic bags, imposing stiff fines and even jail time for anyone found using, importing or manufacturing the bags.
In one of the biggest garbage dumping sites in Nairobi, it was business as usual Monday. Loads of plastic bags full of garbage were brought in, a testament to their widespread use in the capital.
But no more, says the government.
A new law went into effect Monday making the manufacture, sale and use of polythene plastic bags illegal. Offenders can get slapped with penalties up to a four-year jail term and a $40,000 fine.
The National Environment Management Authority, with the help security agencies, has been going around Nairobi to urge retailers and manufacturers to heed the new ban.
Geoffrey Wahungu is the director general of NEMA. He is promoting the “take-bag scheme,” basically calling on consumers to bring their own cloth bags or baskets from home.
“I hope soon we'll start seeing people who are carrying out these recycling materials, or alternative bags, which are eco-friendly. All this is creating much more employment than is being lost,” he said.
Two plastic bag importers unsuccessfully challenged the ban before the High Court Friday. Kenya produces plastic bags for local use and export in the region. The National Association of Manufacturers has argued that the ban will cost more than 60,000 jobs and hurt more than 170 companies.
NEMA gave six months’ notice of the new ban, but it still appears to have taken many in Kenya by surprise.
Some large retailers have already switched to paper, but small traders are feeling the pinch.
Simon Njenga runs a grocery kiosk. He says he lost customers Monday.
He says “the ban pains me a lot because a customer wants to purchase vegetables, but he doesn’t have a bag and I can’t give him one, so they leave my kiosk without buying. The government has to bring back the plastic bags. My livelihood depends on it.”
Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi and Cameroon have announced similar bans on plastic bags, although the bans aren't widely enforced. Rwanda is the only African country so far to both declare a ban and push people to follow the law.
Kenyan Environment Minister Judy Wakhungu told Reuters news agency that manufacturers and importers will be the ones initially targeted for enforcement of the ban.
Experts argue that polythene bags are bad for the environment and public health. The thin plastic bags have been blamed for polluting cities and shorelines and killing animals who eat them.
NEMA says the single-use polythene bags “never fully biodegrade, remaining in the environment as small or even microscopic particles, essentially forever.”