Will Kenya's war on plastic be successful this time?

A woman sort out plastic bags after washing them for re-use at the shores of a river in Nairobi, Kenya.

Story highlights

  • This is the third time Kenya has tried to ban use of polythene bags
  • If found selling them, one risks a jail term of up to four years, a fine of $40,000 or both.

(CNN)Holding a pack of plastic bags, Jonathan Mwagangi maneuvers through a crowd of shoppers in Eastleigh, Nairobi's busy shopping market, looking for his next customer.

For 15 years, the 56-year-old has been selling plastic bags here, but his business will come to an abrupt end thanks to a new law from the Kenyan government.
    Starting on August 28 it will become illegal to use, manufacture and import plastic bags for commercial and household packaging.
    Jonathan Mwagangi, 56, has been selling plastic bags for the past 15 years. Photo/Yunis Dekow
    "The purpose of the government ban (on) the use of plastic bags is to avoid health and environmental effects resulting from the use of plastic bags," the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), a state agency that enforces environmental policies and laws, said in a statement.
    If found selling a plastic bag, suppliers like Mwagangi risk a jail term of up to four years or a fine of $38,000 or both. Dealers were given six months to clear their existing stock; that period is now over, and so is Mwagangi's business.
    "I sell plastic bags because it's my only source of income," Mwagangi tells CNN. "I will not have anything to sell unless manufacturers give alternative bags for people like me to continue working."

    Third time lucky?

    This isn't the first time the country has tried to tackle the issue of plastic bags.
    In 2007, Kenya tried to discourage their use by limiting the thickness of plastic bags, ordering manufacturers and importers to only sell bags with more than 30 microns. Four years later, they tried again by banning plastic bags less than 60 microns, which were considered more recycle- friendly.
    Both plans failed.
    "This fell into technical hitches as it was hard for common citizens to differentiate the papers in terms of microns contained in a given plastic paper bags. As a result, the enforcement was hard to sustain," says Evans Nyabuto, a NEMA spokesman.
    Nyabuto says it will be effective this time because plastic bags have been banned completely. He says the government has sufficiently educated the public about it, and support from major supermarkets like Nakumatt will provide a boost.

    'Kenya should be commended'

    The ban has been praised by The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which estimates that Kenya uses about 24 million bags every month. Most of them find their way into the Indian Ocean, contributing to the eight million tonnes of plastic dumped in the sea every year.
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    "Kenya should be commended for its environmental leadership," says Erik Solheim, the head of UN Environment. "It's a great example that I hope will inspire others, and help drive further commitments to the Clean Seas campaign."
    Earlier this year, UNEP launched the "Clean Seas Initiative" in a bid to urge governments around the world to get rid of plastics entirely.
    UNEP predicts that by 2050, the fish in the oceans will be outnumbered by pieces of plastic, threatening marine ecosystems, wildlife and tourism.

    '1.2 million jobs at stake'

    But the ban has been met with some opposition.
    According to the Kenyan Association of Manufacturers, there are 176 plastic bag manufacturers in the country. "The direct employment created by the plastic sector is over 2.89% Kenyan employees," says Phyllis Wakiaga, KAM CEO. "Indirect employment and dependents through retailers, wholesalers, recyclers, packers and outlets is over 1.2 million personnel nationwide."
    Nyabuto counters this argument by saying that the government has tried to engage with manufacturers on how to resolve "the menace of plastic bags in the environment," to no avail.
    "On a positive note, the ban will create more employment" he says. "Industries manufacturing plastic bags will switch to manufacturing of the required bags."
    Dr. Leah Oyake-Ombise, an environment specialist in Nairobi, thinks that the government should invest in technologies that would help put a plastic waste management system in place.
    "We have failed to address (the) solid waste management system. Nobody is talking about it. That's where we need to invest," she said, adding that the government should look for "resources required and source for them to manage this sector."

    A change across the continent?

    Kenya joins more than a dozen African countries that have either banned or proposed the prohibition of plastic bags. They include Rwanda, Mauritania, Eritrea, Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Malawi.
    So far, Rwanda's effort to do away with non-biodegradable plastic is seen as the most successful among the African countries, and the country has maintained its stand.
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    Rwanda, through its representative to East African Legislative Assembly, fronted a bill that seeks to ban the use of plastic bags in all East Africa Community member states. But the bill is still being debated.
    The latest move by Kenya will be seen as a boost for other countries to join hands and totally ban the use of these bags.
    Back in Eastleigh, Mwagangi is hoping that manufacturers will provide alternative bags for him to continue with his business.
    "The ban will make people like me idle," he says.