Kenyans are taking plastic bag pollution very seriously. As of Monday, get caught so much as using one—let alone producing or selling them—and you could face up to four years in prison or $40,000 in fines. It’s the harshest punishment in the world for plastic bags, coming from a country joining more than 40 others to curb pollution. And it confronts what has perhaps been the most common lifestyle item—and most harmful—of the last 40 years.
The extreme measures come from a very evident pollution crisis.
"If we continue like this, by 2050, we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish," Habib El-Habr, an expert on marine litter working with the U.N. Environment Programme in Kenya, told The Independent. Plastic shopping bags are notorious for strangling sea turtles, asphyxiating seabirds, and causing extensive internal damage when consumed by marine animals including dolphins and whales.
And it’s not just the pollution that is so dangerous: El-Habr said plastic now regularly enters the human food chain by way of fish and other animals. In Nairobi, for example, cows at slaughterhouses have been found with more than 20 bags in their stomachs.
Plastic bags are also a major eyesore throughout Nairobi, Kenya’s capital; and pile up into towers at various dumpsites throughout the country. That’s because supermarkets alone give out 100 million plastic bags in Kenya every year, according to the United Nations Environmental Program.
Almost four dozen nations have joined Kenya in banning, partly banning, or taxing single-use plastic bags. This includes taxes imposed by Denmark, Ireland and Scotland; bans in Italy, Brazil, and Bangladesh; and fines for giving customers plastic bags at checkout in countries like Mexico.
The minimum punishment for using, manufacturing or importing bags in the East African country is a $19,000 fine, or one year in prison. The country did make one exemption, for plastic bags produced for industrial purposes. This is Kenya’s third attempt at banning plastic bags. The first, about a decade ago, failed in large part because of a lack of enforcement and implementation. That has caused some people to view the new ban pessimistically; doubtful it will be a success either.
At least for now, it’s unlikely that you’d be arrested for walking down the street with a plastic bag filled with groceries. "Ordinary wananchi [“common man”] will not be harmed," Judy Wakhungu, Kenya's environment minister, told Reuters. Still, the residual effects could hurt part of Kenya even while healing another.
"The knock-on effects will be very severe," Samuel Matonda, spokesman for the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, told The Guardian. "It will even affect the women who sell vegetables in the market—how will their customers carry their shopping home?" Matonda estimates the ban will take 60,000 jobs from the economy and close doors on 176 manufacturers; as Kenya is a very large supplier and manufacturer of plastic bags throughout the region.