Kenya has been a major exporter or plastic bag in the past – but now the country is cracking down on the plastic pollution with the toughest law of its kind in the world. Kenyans selling, producing, or just using plastic bags could face a $40,000 fine or imprisonment for as long as four years.
Kenya’s plastic bag law came into effect just this week. According to Reuters, the country in East Africa joins over 40 countries worldwide that have either banned, partly banned, or put a tax on single-use plastic bags, such as Rwanda, Italy, and China. Under Kenya’s new law, police can target any person carrying a plastic bag, although environment minister Judy Wakhungu told Reuters enforcement would initially prioritize suppliers and manufacturers, and that the common man “will not be harmed.”
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Not everyone is happy with the new law, which took Kenya more than 10 years – and three attempts – to pass. Kenya Association of Manufacturers spokesperson Samuel Matonda said 176 manufacturers will have to close, with around 60,000 jobs lost.
But other people point to the environmental cost of plastic bags: it can take between 500 and 1,000 years for them to break down. And the bags have been showing up in cows intended for human consumption. In slaughterhouses in Nairobi, some of these cows had 20 bags taken out of their stomachs. County vet Mbuthi Kinyanjui said, “This is something we didn’t get 10 years ago but now it’s almost on a daily basis.”
Kenya borders the Indian Ocean, and plastic bags can drift into the ocean and end up consumed by whales and dolphins, who ultimately die as their stomachs fill up with trash. The bags can strangle or suffocate marine creatures like turtles and seabirds. Plastic also ends up in fish later eaten by humans. Marine litter expert Habib El-Habr, working with the United Nations Environment Program in Kenya, said, “If we continue like this, by 2050, we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish.”
Supermarket chains in Kenya such as Nakumatt and Carrefour have begun offering cloth bags as alternatives to plastic for customers.
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