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.
3 traders were arrested in Nairobi yesterday using banned plastic bags. About 500 pieces of the bags were seized. The trio are being presented in court today. According to Section 144 of EMCA, any person using banned bags is liable to 2-4 million fine or imprisonment of 1-4 years pic.twitter.com/kXUTS571FL— NEMA Kenya (@NemaKenya) February 18, 2020
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.
Leave the poor folks alone... Arrest the fat cartels importing the banned plastic bags from Outside Kenya.....— Jafee (@common_jafee) February 18, 2020
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”.
Poor traders will be jailed for upto 4 years for using plastic bags or pay millions in fine. Unfortunately @NemaKenya will never arrest the rich people who dump industrial waste on our rivers or the ones who run noisy clubs in residential areas.— Boniface Mwangi (@bonifacemwangi) February 18, 2020
It's a crime to be poor in Kenya. https://t.co/ZZ790PPyhS
Another Twitter user said NEMA should fight plastic pollution by going after manufacturers instead of people who are simply trying to make ends meet.
Regulations in Kenya are proof that they increase the cost of doing business and punish the poor.— Dennis Kioko (丹尼斯 祺欧口 ) (@denniskioko) February 19, 2020
1. Plastic ban increased cost of packaging food, sees hawkers and mama mbogas go to prison
2.NTSA rules increase cost of matatus and taxis, better digital matatus are against law
Kenya has a massive problem with pollution, and rapid urbanisation and lack of recycling infrastructure are among the causes.
This is low even for NEMA. NEMA can't do basic stuff like draft local trash separation and recycling policies for the public or even come up with plastic recycling plants but they can harass poor people lol. I struggle to see the use of NEMA— Samantha (@Rchesoni) February 18, 2020
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.
Poor traders, they were just trying to make a living. They sure won't be able to afford the 2million fines, a 4year imprisonment is inevitable for them, huu ni uhasama na hujuma kwa mnyonge, NEMA should go for the manufacturers of these plastics n not these poor traders— Lokiteso (@Lokiteso) February 18, 2020
Nancy Githaiga, WWF Kenya's policy and research manager, told the BBC that the ban is showing some impact.
"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.
Over a plastic bag?! I'm not familiar with the region or laws but I'm curious how large retailers are not damaging the environment using mass amounts of plastic, but these small traders are?— Sodastarz (@Sodastarz1) February 18, 2020
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.
White farmers have destroyed lake Naivasha .. but your little wisdom thinks these hawkers poses a bigger threat than these farmers and industries draining their waste into lakes and rivers 😠😠😠— George Kayman (@KaymanGeorge) February 18, 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.