Jail and £30,000 fines threatened by new Kenyan plastic bag ban

Anyone found to be manufacturing, importing or even using plastic carrier bags for commercial and household packaging in Kenya could face a fine of up to £30,000 and imprisonment of up to two years after a new ban was introduced this week.

Despite a high court challenge, the ban came into effect at the third attempt in ten years on 28 August and will apply to all plastic carrier bags with or without gussets or handles and flat bags used as secondary packaging material.

Jail and £30,000 fines threatened by new Kenyan plastic bag ban
Introducing the ban in February, the Kenyan Government said that anyone contravening the ban ‘shall be liable to a fine of not less than two million Kenya Shillings (£15,000), and not more than four million Kenya shillings (£30,000), or imprisonment of a term of not less than one year but not more than two years or to both such fine and imprisonment’. It has since been reported that offenders could face up to four years in prison.

This sum is even larger when you consider that the GDP per capita in Kenya is $1,455, compared to the $39,900 in the UK.

The ban follows the example of many other African countries including Rwanda, Mauritania and Eritrea, with Kenya’s ban seen as one of the toughest in the world, although officials at the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) have indicated that ordinary shoppers will receive a warning and have their bags confiscated rather than be pursued legally.

Kenya's plastic problem

Kenya’s plastic bag problem, as in many African countries, is pronounced, with research carried out by Kenya’s National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) together with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Kenya Institute of Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) revealing that some 100 million plastic bags are handed out each year in supermarkets alone.

A study of Nairobi’s abbatoir’s meanwhile, has revealed that the carcasses of some cows have been found to have as many as 20 bags in their stomachs. Vet Mbuthi Kinyanjui told Reuters: ““This is something we didn’t get 10 years ago but now it’s almost on a daily basis”.

The government outlined the deleterious health and environmental effects of plastic bag use in its rationale for the ban, underlining impacts such as:

  • the inability of plastic bags to decompose, thus negatively affecting soil quality;
  • the litter problem perpetuated by plastic bag use;
  • the blockage of sewerage and drainage infrastructure;
  • the damage to ecosystems and biodiversity;
  • the pollution of the coastal and marine environment;
  • the death of land animals following the consumption of plastic;
  • the endangerment of human health when plastic is used for food packaging;
  • the emission of poisonous gases when used to light charcoal; and
  • the air pollution caused by open air incineration of plastic bags.

Commenting on the ban, Kenya’s Environment Minister stressed the threat posed by plastic bags, telling the BBC: “Plastic bags now constitute the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya. This has become our environmental nightmare that we must defeat by all means.”

Kenya is taking decisive action to remove an ugly stain on its outstanding natural beauty,” said Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment. “Plastic waste also causes immeasurable damage to fragile ecosystems – both on land and at sea – and this decision is a major breakthrough in our global effort to turn the tide on plastic.

“Kenya should be commended for its environmental leadership. It's a great example that I hope will inspire others, and help drive further commitments to the Clean Seas campaign.”

Jail and £30,000 fines threatened by new Kenyan plastic bag ban
Kenya is home to some 40 million people, three million of which live in the capital Nairobi
Doubts remain

The ban was initially announced in the Kenyan government publication Kenya Gazette, which publishes notices of new legislation, on 28 February 2017, announcing that there would be a six-month grace period for manufacturers and importers to clear their stocks before the full ban was implemented on 28 August 2017.

The proposed ban ran into considerable opposition from certain sectors of society. A petition submitted to the Kenyan High Court by plastic bag importers Fredrick Njenga and Stephen Mwangi hoping to extend the grace period and contest the ban read: ‘The subject notice is unconstitutional because it is not in keeping with the principles of good governance enshrined in the constitution — accountability, public participation and transparency.’

This petition was rejected on Friday (25 August). Judge Bernard Eboso threw out the appeal on the grounds that environmental conservation would be seriously undermined if the legislation was suspended, an outcome that would not be in the public interest.

Resistance to the ban was somewhat inevitable from plastic bag importers and manufacturers whose livelihoods depend on the sale of the bags, but opposition has also emerged among waste management groups who say that the ban on manufacturing of plastic bags could cost some 80,000 jobs while the ban on the sale of bin liners could greatly impinge on the work of waste collectors according to the Waste and Environment Management association of Kenya (WEMAK).

It appears, however, that ordinary Kenyans are quietly getting on with the change, with many preferring to comply with the ban rather than risk the tough punishments for contravening the ban. Many are using bags made from different materials than plastic, while others are using old sacks, newspapers, envelopes and even just carrying items in their arms.

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