If it’s a choice between suffocating seabirds, strangling turtles or the convenience of a plastic bag, Kenya is taking the side of marine animals.
Starting this week, citizens producing, selling or even using plastic bags will risk imprisonment of up to four years or fines of $40,000. It’s the world’s toughest law attacking plastic pollution which threatens land and sea.
Throughout Kenya, plastic bags are found everywhere — on roofs, on walls and clogging drainage. Kenyans are estimated to use 24 million bags a month.
“It is a toxin we must get rid of,” Judi Wakhungu, the country’s environment minister, told reporters.
“It’s affecting our water. It’s affecting our livestock and, even worse, we are ingesting this as human beings.”
In Nairobi’s slaughterhouses, some cows destined for human consumption have had bags removed from their stomachs.
“This is something we didn’t get 10 years ago but now it’s almost on a daily basis,” said county vet Mbuthi Kinyanjui as he watched men in bloodied white uniforms scoop sodden plastic bags from the stomachs of cow carcasses.
Plastic bags take between 500 to 1,000 years to break down.
Kenya’s law allows police to go after anyone even carrying a plastic bag but enforcement will initially be directed at manufacturers and suppliers.
More than 40 other countries have banned, partly banned or taxed single use plastic bags, including China, France, Rwanda, and Italy.
What’s good for the turtle, however, is not necessarily a welcome idea for manufacturers who complain that some 176 companies with thousands of workers producing plastic bags will have to close. Kenya is a major exporter of the bags to the region.
“The knock-on effects will be very severe,” said Samuel Matonda of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers. “It will even affect the women who sell vegetables in the market – how will their customers carry their shopping home?”
Meanwhile, in Nairobi, many supermarkets have switched from plastic bags to reusable, cloth sacks, but a quick drive around Nairobi revealed that plastic bags are still in use. So far, there have been no reports of any enforcement actions.