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Kenyans use an average of 24 million plastic bags a month. Photo: Joshua Amponsem

Kenyans use an average of 24 million plastic bags a month. Photo: Joshua Amponsem

The Inertia

Kenya just dropped the toughest new law regarding plastic bags. According to the BBC, anyone producing, selling, or even using single-use plastic bags can be sent to jail for four years or be fined up to $38,000.

Plastic is the world’s handiest scourge. It’s everywhere you look–the device you’re reading this on, the computer I’m writing this on, the bag your latest purchase came in. That last one, especially, is a tough one. According to Earth Policy, every year the United States uses 30 billion plastic bags. Slowly but surely, those bags are being traded out for something better because a lot of people are coming to the realization that there are better options.

Already, Rwanda, Mauritania, and Eritrea have outlawed plastic bags. Kenyans use somewhere around 24 million plastic bags each month, and in many places, there are no recycling or garbage system set up. “Plastic bags now constitute the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya,” Kenya’s Environment Minister, Judy Wakhungu, told the BBC. “This has become our environmental nightmare that we must defeat by all means.”

Manufacturers are pissed because they’re looking at a big hit to the wallet. They’re claiming that as many as 80,000 jobs will be lost as a direct result of the ban. Here’s an interesting fact: Using paper or cotton bags isn’t necessarily better for the environment, excepting the obvious recycling benefits.


“Research in Europe has shown that a paper bag must be used three times to compensate for the larger amount of carbon used in manufacturing and transporting it,” wrote the BBC. “Likewise a plastic ‘bag for life’ must be used four times, and a cotton bag must be used 131 times.”

Last week, two plastic bag importers filed a case to get the ban dropped, but the High Court threw it out. In the last decade, there have been two failed attempts to ban plastic bags in Kenya, but this one looks like it might stick. The court ruled that commercial interests didn’t trump the pressing environmental issues Kenya is facing.

Kenya is now part of a group of more than 40 other countries that have either banned plastic bags or taxed the shit out of them. “The ubiquity of the objects, which cause a whole manner of issues as they are thrown into land fill, the streets, and more frequently than not, the oceans, has meant that many nations are re-thinking their attitude towards the bags,” wrote Josh Davis for IFLScience. “Clearly, the main issue of plastic bags is their single-use intention. Taking energy and oil to produce, they are only used once before often being thrown away, after which they may take between 500 and 1,000 years to degrade. In the oceans, they break down into micro plastics, which are then thought to be consumed by birds, turtles, and fish. If humans eat these fish, then we too can end up consuming the plastics.”

For now, at least, the everyday consumer in Kenya needn’t worry too much. Officials are focussing more on the producers of bags instead of those who use them. Ordinary shoppers caught with plastic bags will simply be given a warning and have their bags taken away–presumably leaving the contents with the shopper.

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