International, Plastic Pollution, Sustainability

Kenya’s Plastic Bag Ban: An Imperfect but Effective Policy

By: Caroline Kane

On a recent flight to Kenya, I was warned by the passenger next to me, a native-Kenyan, to throw away my plastic bags before landing. Replaying the previous night’s packing session in my head, I was comforted to know I had not packed a single plastic bag (this was not for lack of trying – I simply had run out of plastic bags in my apartment). I engaged the man in conversation, and learned that plastic bags had recently been banned in Kenya. A violation, the man warned, could get someone in a lot of trouble. Since I was curious about this ban, and had an hour-long cab ride to my hotel ahead of me, I researched this environmental law.

I quickly learned that Kenya’s plastic bag ban has company. Over 100 members of the United Nations have banned or taxed the bags, and New York recently became the second state in the U.S. to ban plastic bags. On the African continent alone, 34 countries have taxes or bans on the bags. What makes Kenya’s policy unique, however, is its heavy penalties. Instituted in August of 2017, the law carries heavy fines (up to $38,000) and even prison time (up to four years) for anyone caught producing, selling, or simply carrying a plastic bag.

The heavy penalties associated with the plastic bag ban are a strong incentive for people to comply with the law. Since taking effect, positive results are prevalent in various walks of life. For example, obstruction of waterways has decreased and fishermen have fewer bags caught in their nets. The amount of plastic found in animals taken to slaughter has also decreased. Furthermore, the plastic bag ban has had a special impact on Nairobi’s shanty towns. Shanty towns are affected by the phenomena of “flying toilets” – the practice of defecating in bags and throwing them up to the tin roofs. In the Mathare community, use of the communal toilet is up. The ban has led to an overall cleaner community.

Of course, implementing this ban hasn’t been seamless. Alternative reusable bags are costly, and the government does not issue subsidies to businesses who use alternative bags. The swift implementation of the ban halted some business, and the broad interpretation of “plastic bags” has caused thousands of people, like exporters of food and flower products, to be laid off. Furthermore, some venders have replaced traditional plastic shopping bags with bags made of synthetic fiber – in other words, “[p]lastic bags replaced by plastic bags.”

As with any such ban, Kenya is still perfecting its policy surrounding plastic bags. While such a drastic ban surely has a positive effect on the environment, the government should try to find affordable (non-plastic) alternatives to traditional plastic bags. It should also help to find work for those displaced due to the plastic bag ban. Kenya should strive for a just life for its people as well as its environment.