NEXT week, plastic shopping bags will become illegal in Kenya. The ban has been welcomed by environmental campaigners, who say the bags litter Kenya’s streets, clog up its water systems and hurt animals. Director of Environmental Compliance Kevin Ongare said “Kenya is a country of pastoralists, fisherman and tourism. The presence of plastic bags has made those sectors to suffer”. However, the bag ban has been accused of hurting businesses and making workers redundant. The ban has even been challenged in court.
Kenya is not the first country to ban plastic bags.
In fact, the very first place was the small US island Nantucket, in 1990. Nantucket went a step further by banning all plastic packaging in 2016.
The first country to ban the bags nationwide was Bangladesh in 2002. The decision was made after two thirds of Bangladesh was flooded in 1988 and 1998. It was estimated that up to 80% of waterlogging in the cities was caused by plastic blocking drains.
Other Asian countries followed. China banned some bags in 2008 as part of a big clean up in the country before the Beijing Olympics. Many rural Chinese ignore the ban and about a third of plastic waste in oceans comes from China.
There are no nationwide bag bans in either South or North America. Plastic bags have been banned in US state California and many towns and cities across the country. All of the counties in Hawaii have banned plastic bags, effectively banning them statewide. Other states have been stopped introducing bans by plastic industry lobbying. Canada has bans in a number of towns, including Montreal.
In Africa, the bags have been banned in Eritrea, Mauritania, Morocco, Rwanda and Tanzania. Nigeria has no bag ban, but a different approach has been taken by a company called From Waste to Wealth. It encourages women to crotchet plastic waste into colorful reusable bags which are sold in markets.
Rwanda’s ban is so strict that visitors to the country have reported being forced to surrender plastic bags at Kigali airport. There is now a plastic bag black market, with smugglers taking them across the Congolese border. Shopkeepers stocking the bags can be jailed for 6-12 months and carrying one in public is punishable with a fine of over 126,000 Rwandan francs (Sh16000).
Many countries have only banned plastic bags under a certain thickness. One example is France, which bans plastic bags with a thickness under 50 microns. Uganda tried to ban bags under 30 microns and introduce taxes for larger plastic bags in 2007. The ban has not been widely enforced and has not made a big difference.
Other countries either tax the bags or charge shoppers for them. Denmark was the first country to use this method, introducing a tax in 1994. Similar tactics have become popular in many European countries. One example is Britain, where disposable bags now cost 5p in supermarkets (7Sh). Their use has fallen by an estimated 85%. Environment minister Thérèse Coffey called it ‘fantastic news for all of us’. The European Union passed a directive in 2014 to reduce plastic bag use by 80% by 2019.
As well as cleaning up Kenya’s streets and streams, the bag ban is part of a worldwide movement to remove plastic waste from oceans. Animals are poisoned when they eat bits of plastic they confuse for food. It is estimated that 99% of sea birds have ingested plastic. Scientists discovered a giant garbage patch in the Indian Ocean in 2010, which is partly made of plastic bags. One animal plastic bags are good for is mosquitoes. The bags have been accused of giving malaria carrying mosquitoes breeding spaces in tropical countries.
Bans on plastic bags will help reduce littering and bad impacts on animals. However, there is a long way to go before the oceans are clean. Plastic bottle tops, plastic coffee cup lids and many other kinds of plastic waste are also damaging. It is projected that there will be more litter than fish in the oceans by 2050. Other kinds of bags can be bad for the environment too. Some paper bags are made with trees cut down from endangered forests. Cotton used in some bags is responsible for the destruction of water systems like Central Asia’s Aral Sea.
Kenya and the rest of the world have a lot to clean up, but the plastic bag bans are a good start.