Banning Plastic Bags in Africa

Nine people found this week with plastic bags have been arrested by National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) officials, in a swoop to ensure that the country has no market for the bags. These are some of the Kenyans yet to come to terms with the new norm that came into effect on August 2017 when the government banned the manufacture, importation and use of plastic bags. Over 24 million plastic bags were used monthly before the ban according to the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), while a 100 million plastic bags were handed out yearly by supermarkets alone according to the United Nations (UN) Environment. Kenya has one of the toughest penalties for non-compliance in the world. Those found selling, producing or using the banned plastic materials will be arrested and charged, risking imprisonment of up to four years, or a fine of between 2 million and 4 million Kenyan Shillings.

While they may be cheap and an easy way to carry goods, plastic bags are wreaking havoc in a number of ways. This threat is not only felt when they end up in landfill, but also to the resources needed to produce, transport and recycle them. Harmful emissions occur as a result of processing plastic bags. Animals often mistake these bags for either food or materials to build nests for birds. They can choke, poison or entangle animals externally or internally (intestines). The bags create flooding problems where they clog pipes and drains, providing an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. They also damage agricultural fields. Besides being unsightly, the problem with these bags is that they are not biodegradable. They contain polyethylene which means that they can’t be disposed off properly or recycled thus causing pollution. Even when disposed off properly, experts say plastic bags can last up to hundreds of years, breaking off into smaller pieces that are still toxic. The petroleum used to manufacture them can go into better and more important use.

So serious is the plastic bag problem in Africa that over 15 countries on the continent have either banned their use completely or charged a tax on them. Kenya is the latest entrant to join Rwanda, Nigeria and Morocco among others in placing a ban on plastic bags.

Visitors entering Rwanda will see a large sign reading “Use of non-biodegradable polythene bags is prohibited” at the airport. Luggage is searched at border points and any form of plastic bags is confiscated. The 2008 ban is in line with the country’s Vision 2020 sustainability plan. This has made Rwanda one of the most clean and pristine countries not only in Africa but also worldwide. Unlike Kenya that has high penalties of between 3 to 4 million Kenyan Shillings or a jail sentence of 4 years, shopkeepers stocking the bags in Rwanda can be jailed for a year and carriers can be fined over 126,000 Rwandan francs (16000 KShs). This shows that a combination of political goodwill and less laws can effect the plastic bags ban.

Morrocco banned the production, import, sale and distribution of plastic bags across the country in July 2016. The law was dubbed zero mika or zero plastic in Arabic. Earlier efforts in 2009 by the North African country to ban the production and use of black plastic bags, was partially successful. The 2016 prohibition has shown encouraging results according the government with Moroccans adjusting to using paper and fabric bags.

Unlike Kenya, Rwanda and Morocco, South Africa’s has not banned plastic bags but introduced a plastic bag levy in 2004 in an attempt to reduce their consumption. However the levy proved lucrative and a money spinner for the government and retailers. Besides, it didn’t stop the consumers appetite for plastic bags. The problem was so bad in South Africa that the country had declared plastic bags the national flower due to their presence on trees and bushes. The government is in the process of outlawing thin plastic bags and has recommended much thicker re-usable ones instead.

Plastic bags are a commodity used in high volumes in Nigeria thus having immense negative effects. This is why the idea of banning plastic here was mooted in 2013. However, the plan did not go beyond the pronouncements because there was no serious action taken towards implementing the action plan or the ban. Environmental experts in the West African country feel that political goodwill is lacking in enforcing a plastic bag ban. In October 2017, the Nigerian House of Representatives passed a bill to control the manufacture, use and disposal of the bags. Environmentalists say a lot more measures need to be taken such as imposing more hefty fines or the outright ban of the plastic bags.

Unlike Nigeria that’s grappling with legislation on plastic bags ban, Uganda introduced a law in 2007 to ban the sale of lightweight plastic bags. Although the laws came into effect the same year in September, the East African country ran into enforcement problems which has hindered the fight against the ban of the bags commonly referred to as kaveera in Uganda. Another legislation was passed in 2009 banning the production, import and distribution of thicker plastic bags, yet such bags are still in use today in the country. The government has been blamed for poorly implementing the ban on kaveera due to its failure to involve key stakeholders including the public.

A plastic bottle ban looms in Kenya as the country now traines her eyes on these bottles. With the successful implementation of the plastic bags ban currently underway, the Ministry of Environment says it will opt to go the recycling route and encourage plastic bottle manufacturers to develop plans to reprocess the bottles. However the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) says it’s drafting a gazette notice that will see the plastic bottles ban implemented by the end of April this year if manufacturers don’t install collection points by the end of the same month.

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