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Banning plastics? Africa is getting it done.

Plastic pollution accumulates in the environment. (Source: Handout)
Plastic pollution accumulates in the environment. (Source: Handout)

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 31 countries have banned single-use plastic. 

Kenya is in the lead with its draconian penalties for infractions — and its promising results. 

Flood of plastic

Single-use plastics have become a significant part of the world’s plastics crisis. 

Their rise to dominance in grocery store sales is familiar across the planet, as individual items such as fruits and vegetables are provided their own plastic bags, which are then placed in other plastic bags that are toted out of the store.

Particularly in countries with poor sanitation, millions of discarded bags quickly make their way into the air, the trees, and the waterways, plugging drains, choking rivers, and exacerbating flooding. 

They end up in the stomachs of domestic animals, and like many plastics, in the world’s oceans, beaches — and the digestive tracts of marine animals.

Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s most impoverished region, has been its most proactive in cracking down on single-use plastics. 

Rwanda banned non-biodegradable plastic in 2008, and its capital, Kigali, has been named Africa’s cleanest city as result. 

Tanzania began its push in 2017 by prohibiting the making and distribution of plastics by the nation’s residents. 

Two years later, plastics have also been prohibited for tourists. 

Kenya is in the lead

But it is the East African nation of Kenya that has received the most attention, because their ban has been the strictest. 

Before 2017, Kenyan grocery stores gave more than 100 million plastic bags to its customers. 

The devastating results for environment and human health resulted in a ban that levies fines of up to $1,500 dollars, an enormous sum in this impoverished country, along with the threat of prison time. 

It’s even more severe for those who manufacture or provide plastic bags to customers — sentences can be as long as four years, and fines can reach $40,000.

Exceptions exist for medical uses, bread, packaging, cling wrap, and so forth, as they do in other countries.

But in the first year-and-a-half of the ban, 500 people were arrested and 300 were prosecuted. A market was closed down for non-compliance. 

As a result, the presence of plastics is plummeting in Kenya’s environment.  

Even though reusable polystyrene bags are still allowed for carrying groceries, only 20 percent of the population uses them, most opting for reusable cloth bags and other alternatives. 

James Wakibia, an environmentalist who pushed for the anti-bag measures, is pleased. “Streets, drains, sewer lines, rivers,” he told the Huffington Post, “are much cleaner.”

Pre-plastic prosperity

Meanwhile, some local entrepreneurs are benefitting from Kenya’s return to pre-plastic bag ways. 

Kiondos — sisal fiber and leather bags that are a specialized Kenyan craft — are the stock in trade for Wanjiku Njenga, a former activist turned luxury kiondo seller. 

After the bag ban, she says she began to sell kiondos as accessories for shoppers. 

“This was the perfect chance to be part of the change. To be part of a cleaner Kenya,” she told The Daily Nation, a Kenyan news outlet.

Of course, single-use bags are only a part of Kenya’s overall plastics problem. 

The Kenyan Association of Manufacturers, together with the government, are also working on wider solutions that tax plastics entering the market, then use the proceeds for waste management and recycling. 

Kenya’s Plastics Action Plan will be implemented this year, and puts much more responsibility on businesses as well as public entities in solving the country’s plastic-waste crisis.

Sources: Huffington Post, Quartz, The Daily Nation (Kenya)

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