Beginning today, plastic bags will no longer be found in Kenya. If someone is found using one, then they will face a $38,000 fine or potential four-year jail sentence.
It’s officially the world’s harshest plastic bag deterrent.
A full ban on producing, selling, or using plastic bags went into law Monday after a court rejected challenges brought by two large plastic bag importers. The new law was successfully implemented on the third time around, after the first bag-ban in Kenya was proposed over 10 years ago.
Plastic bag pollution is a persistent problem in Kenya. It is not uncommon to see large piles of the single use bags littering the streets of urban centers, where vendors and customers frequently use them to sell and transport items.
Though the bags are convenient, the ultimate cost to the environment is astounding.
"Plastic bags now constitute the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya,” said Kenya's Environment Minister Judy Wakhungu in an interview with the BBC. “This has become our environmental nightmare that we must defeat by all means.”
According to Wakhungu, plastic bags can last anywhere from 20 to 1,000 years in a landfill before they biodegrade. In the meantime, they pose environmental hazards to the communities they end up in.
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Serious concerns were raised about the safety of bag disposal when rements of plastic bags were found in the stomach of cows who were to be slaughtered for human consumption. Leaching of plastics into beef destined for supermarkets pose a worrying health risk, according to local veterinarian Mbuthi Kinyanjui.
“This is something we didn’t get 10 years ago but now it’s almost on a daily basis,” he told the Guardian.
Scientists are concerned that the pile up of plastic bags is having a similar negative effect on the marine food chain, where plastic particles can easily make their way into the fish humans eat. The bags also threaten sea life not consumed by humans, such as dolphins, whales, and turtles.
In a country that uses an estimated 24 million plastic bags per month, many see the move as a victory for the environment.
However, some people in the business community worry that the ban will ultimately harm economic prosperity, and generally make life more difficult for the average Kenyan.
Kenya is a major exporter of plastic bags in Africa.
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In an interview with the Guardian, spokesman for the Kenyan Association of Manufacturers Samuel Matonda said the ban would eliminate 60,000 jobs and cause 176 manufacturers to close.
“The knock-on effects will be very severe,” Matonda said. “It will even affect the women who sell vegetables in the market – how will their customers carry their shopping home?”
Right now, Kenyans discovered using bags will only have them confiscated with a warning. Soon, they could face the penalties of what is being called the “world’s toughest law against plastic bags.”
Several other African nations have already enacted similar bans or fines on plastic bag use, as have more than 40 countries around the world including China, France, and Italy.