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Environment

Arrest of 3 Kenyan Vendors Caught With Plastic Bags Is Sparking Outrage Over Inequality


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Kenya banned plastic bags in 2017, and introduced what are said to be some of the strictest penalties in the world to enforce the ban.

People caught manufacturing or using plastic bags face up to four years in jail, or a fine of up to $40,000 (4.4 million Kenyan shillings).

This is the potential punishment that’s facing three Nairobian vendors who appeared in court on Feb. 17 for breaking the plastic bag ban. 

The Kenyan National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) said on Twitter that the men were found with 500 plastic bags.

But the trial has sparked upset among Kenyans on Twitter — with many asking if it’s fair for the severe penalties that come with defying the plastic ban to be felt by the poorest of citizens.

A number of citizens are criticising the impact that the severe penalties will have on the families of those arrested and punished, and highlighting that focusing on "small fish" won't tackle the root causes of the problem of plastic pollution. 

The World Bank estimates that about a third of Kenyans live on less than $1.90 (192 Kenyan Shillings) a day — the international definition for living in extreme poverty. 

Prominent media personality, author, and comedian Boniface Mwangi said law enforcement resources should be used to punish “rich people who dump industrial waste in our rivers”.

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Another Twitter user said NEMA should fight plastic pollution by going after manufacturers instead of people who are simply trying to make ends meet.

Kenya has a massive problem with pollution, and rapid urbanisation and lack of recycling infrastructure are among the causes.

The plastic bag ban was timely, especially in communities like Mathare, where people use communal toilets because of a lack of adequate sanitation facilities.

This in turn has created a phenomenon known as “flying toilets”, when people relieve themselves in plastic bags, tie it up, and throw it on tin roofs.

Nancy Githaiga, WWF Kenya's policy and research manager, told the BBC that the ban is showing some impact.

Related Stories June 6, 2019 Kenya Bans Single-Use Plastics From Beaches and Parks

"It is good progress if what we see around is anything to go by. Previously, driving from Nairobi to a place like the Masai Mara you would see plastic bags hanging from trees like flowers after being blown away and getting stuck. We don't see them any more,” she said.

Meanwhile, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced in June 2019 that all single-use plastics will be completely banned in beaches, national parks, forests, and conservation areas.

The ban will be enforced from June 2020.

"Sustainable environment is a guarantee to a healthy, better, and productive society,” Kenyatta said when he announced the ban at the Women Deliver 2019 Conference, in Vancouver, Canada.