After multiple attempts to implement a ban on plastic bags in Kenya, on Monday it finally became illegal in the country to use plastic bags to carry groceries and throw out trash. The penalties are steep — violators could be fined up to $38,000 or sentenced to up to four years in jail.
"It is a toxin that we must get rid of," Judi Wakhungu, Cabinet secretary for the environment, told reporters. "It's affecting our water. It's affecting our livestock and, even worse, we are ingesting this as human beings." Despite the hefty fines, the government does not plan on going out of its way to arrest Kenyans, she said, adding, "I know they will comply."
Plastic bags are spotted everywhere in Kenya, collecting in trees and along the side of roads, and it's not going to be easy to totally eliminate them from the country — there are nearly 176 plastic bag manufacturers in Kenya, the Kenyan Association of Manufacturers says, employing tens of thousands of people. The organization is challenging the ban in court.
In a country where many people live on less than $2 a day, the ban could make a tough economic situation even worse. In June, NPR spoke with a man who sold charcoal, and he said he'll lose his customers if they can't have a cheap way to carry it home. He also said he keeps a man in business who finds plastic bags, cleans them, then sells them to merchants. Parliament member Kenneth Okoth, who represents the Kibera slum in Nairobi, told NPR he wants to save the environment, but his constituents are too poor to do without the bags. "It may look very fashionable in international circles," he said. "But in reality, in a place like Kibera, we still need those plastics."