A man who scavenges for a living takes a rest on top of a mountain of garbage at the dump in the Dandora slum of Nairobi, Kenya. Photo credit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis.

At a time when Trump is trashing so many of our nation’s environmental policies, Kenya just put us all to shame by implementing one of the world’s strictest plastic bag bans. Under the new law, anyone found selling, manufacturing or even carrying plastic bags could face fines of up to $38,000 or prison sentences of up to four years. Might seem harsh for some plastic, but plastic bags are a serious environmental problem for Kenya (and the entire world); moreover, at the moment, Kenyan enforcement officers are only confiscating plastic bags, and aren’t yet arresting plastic bag users.

“It is a toxin that we must get rid of,” Judi Wakhungu, the country’s Cabinet secretary for the environment, said to reporters earlier in August. “It’s affecting our water. It’s affecting our livestock and, even worse, we are ingesting this as human beings.”

Kenya’s Controversial Ban 

It’s been a grueling ten-year process for Kenya to ban its plastic bags, and now that the law is in place, not everyone is happy; during the decade-long debate, the ban faced staunch opposition from manufactures, retailers and even large sections of the public. Opponents of the plastic bag ban have argued that such a law would cause major job losses across the country, as Kenya is one of the region’s major exporters of plastic bags. “Currently, we have over 176 plastic manufacturing companies in Kenya which directly employ 2.89% of all Kenyan employees,” reads a statement put out by the Kenyan Association of Manufacturers (KAM), which challenged the ban in court multiple times. “These jobs and livelihoods will be negatively affected by this ban.”

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But KAM argues that the effects of the ban will be felt far beyond the plastic bag manufacturing industry. “The knock-on effects will be very severe,” asserted Samuel Matonda, spokesman for KAM, to the The Guardian. “It will even affect the women who sell vegetables in the market — how will their customers carry their shopping home?” And while there are plenty alternatives to plastic bags it’s unfair to assume that Kenya’s citizens can afford to purchase reusable cotton bags (Kenya’s GDP per capita is about 40 times smaller than the United States’). The BBC has reported that Kenyan’s are using “old sacks, newspapers and envelopes” as well as their “bare hands” to carry their goods home.

These reasons might explain why many Kenyans have been against the ban.

Joyce Njeri, 8, carries a sack holding the plastic bottles she has scavenged, as she walks amidst garbage and plastic bags at the garbage dump in the Dandora slum of Nairobi, Kenya. Photo credit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis.

At the same time, about 100 million plastic bags are handed out annually in supermarkets across the country, according to The United Nations Environmental Program, and plastic bags pollution has become an increasingly vexing problem. They turn streets into massive piles of plastic; kill birds, fish and other animals that mistake them for food; and clog up drains and sewers, which causes flooding and provides breeding grounds for mosquitoes that can carry malaria and dengue fever.

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In Nairobi’s slaughterhouses, cows headed for human consumption often have up to 20 plastic bags removed from their stomachs. “This is something we didn’t get 10 years ago but now it’s almost on a daily basis,” said county veterinarian Mbuthi Kinyanjui, to The Guardian.

The list of growing concerns motivated the Kenyan legislator to act. “Kenya is taking decisive action to remove an ugly stain on its outstanding natural beauty,” said Erik Solheim, Head of United Nations Environment Program, in a press release. “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.”

Plastic Bag Bans Across The World

By banning plastic bags, Kenya is joining more than 40 other countries that have either banned, partly banned or taxed single use plastic bags. These countries include the likes of China, which banned plastic bags thinner than .025 millimeters in 2008; France, which instituted a total ban of lightweight plastic bags at checkout counters in 2016; Morocco, which banned the production and use of plastic bags in 2016; the European Union, which announced in 2016 that by 2019, member states had to reduce plastic bag consumption to no more than 90 bags per person a year; and Rwanda, which put in a nationwide ban on non-degradable plastic bags way back in 2008.

By contrast, there is no nationwide ban or tax in the U.S. Still, just because we’re late to the party doesn’t mean we aren’t coming. California and Hawaii both have statewide bans on non-degradable plastic bags, and a growing number of cities and counties have banned or taxed plastic bags at the local level, including Seattle, Austin, Chicago, and Washington D.C. Even under a blatantly anti-environment administration, states and cities are stepping up to produce their own environmental policies.

The Size of the Plastic Problem 

“There are people alive today who remember a world without plastics,” said Jenna Jambeck, co-author of a study that measures global plastic waste, in a press release. “But they have become so ubiquitous that you can’t go anywhere without finding plastic waste in our environment, including our oceans.”

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The study, which was released in July of this year, outlines how plastic production exploded upwards in the past half-century, increasing from 2.2 million tons in 1950 to almost 420 million tons in 2015. This is a growth rate that outpaces almost all other man-made materials, and in all likelihood it won’t slow down anytime soon; if the current trends continue, we’ll have about 13 billion tons of plastic laying around the planet by 2050.

Plastic bags form a significant portion of this plastic pollution. According to the Earth Policy Institute, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, coming out to almost two million bags each minute. And the real problem with these bags is the combination of their short commercial lifespan and the fact that it takes eons for them to decompose in nature (about 500-1,000 years). This provides ample time for these bags to pollute our land and waterways and kill birds and marine animals. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which is roughly the size of Texas; Henderson Island is 3,500 miles away from the nearest large landmass, but is covered in almost 40 million pieces of plastic weighing around 20 tons; and by 2050, scientists have predicted that there may be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

“There are areas where plastics are indispensable, especially in products designed for durability,” explained Kara Lavender Law, another one of the paper’s authors and a research professor at Sea Education Association, in press release. “But I think we need to take a careful look at our expansive use of plastics and ask when the use of these materials does or does not make sense.”