Motivated by a climate of widespread environmental devastation, Africa has boldly moved to initiate a continent-wide ban on plastic bags in an effort to eliminate the billions of throwaway sacks that are marring its cities and landscapes (San Francisco, Melbourne, and other cities have already banned them altogether). It’s no surprise that what was once viewed as a step towards modernization has instead created far-reaching problems for rural and urban communities that initially embraced the cheaply manufactured plastic bag in lieu of totes made of indigenous materials and biodegradables.
Plastic sacks typically wreak havoc in the landscape by blocking drains and sewage systems and damaging ground water, soil, and native plants. They can kill the valuable livestock and foraging animals that ingest them. They are also known to be instrumental in the spread of malaria by creating of minipools of warm water that allow mosquitoes to breed rapidly. Region by region, Africa has had its share of grief caused by the plastic bag outbreak. South Africa once produced 7 billion bags a year and have subsequently imposed a ban on bags thinner than 30 microns, a thickness so flimsy that one’s finger can easily poke through.
Other more durable bags are taxed by South Africa, which, in turn, gives some of this revenue to a plastic bag recycling company. Somaliland residents became so accustomed to plastic bags fluttering about the landscape that they renamed them “the flowers of Hargeisa” after their capital. Until recently, Kenya churned out about 4,000 tons of polyethylene bags a month.
Now the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and other concerned groups are spearheading a fast-growing campaign to remedy the crisis. According to Reuters, “The plastic problem is now on the agenda of almost every African country,” Mebratu, an Ethiopian, said at his office in a UN compound in Nairobi. “The major focus is to promote rational use and disposal of plastic bags.” Rwanda and Eritrea have already banned the bags outright, the United Nations says. “Go to the airport in Kigali and if you have a plastic bag, they will confiscate it,” Mebratu said.
Fortunately, there are alternatives on the horizon for marketplace shoppers and commercial vendors throughout Africa. A recent report in Business Daily Africa describes the new demand for sisal and burlap bags as being practical, eco-friendly fashion statements with locals who also want to sport a more traditional African look. “When the Government of Kenya banned the use of plastic bags, people rushed to seek alternative means to carry their shopping and utilities. But do not forget that people do not want to look backward, so these trendy bags are setting the pace,” said Nduta Ndambuki, who sells sisal bags at Nairobi’s Masaai market.