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What Did We Learn 2 Years After Kenya's Plastic Bag Ban?

Priscilla Greene |

More than two years ago, the Kenyan government enacted the harshest ban on single-use plastic bags in the world. Currently, you may face up to $40,000 in fines or a prison sentence just for bringing plastic bags into the country.

But despite the harsh penalties, the success of the ban remains mixed. Experts believe there is much to learn from Kenya’s bumpy experience for a truly effective plastic ban.


Why Is Kenya’s Plastic Bag Ban the Harshest in the World? 

Before Kenya set a nationwide ban on single use plastic bags in August 2017, businesses used to hand out to consumers around 100 million free plastic bags every single year. The resulting waste led to clogged drainage systems and waterways as the African nation didn’t have a waste management system.

Before the ban, it was estimated that over 50% of the cattle grazing around cities had plastics in their stomachs, with slaughterhouses estimating the average number of plastic bags found in slaughtered cows to 20 per animal.

Currently, Kenya has the harshest penalties in the world for people selling, importing, and producing single use plastic bags. Producers, importers, and smugglers risk up to $40,000 in fines and up to four years in prison if they ignore the ban.

Individual plastic bag users face fines of up to $500 and jail time of up to 12 months. It is estimated that over 500 people have been arrested in connection with the plastic bag ban since 2017. Around 300 have been prosecuted. Many first-time offenders, however, have gotten away with a warning.

The ban had to be drastic, and harsh, otherwise Kenyans would have ignored it,”

plastic bag ban proponent James Wakibia told National Geographic.

There are some exceptions to the law against plastic bags regarding:

  • Garbage bin liners
  • Packaging for fresh food, such as bread, meat, fish, or dairy
  • Medical waste.

Meanwhile, the government readies for even more restrictions on single-use plastic items. Starting June 2020, all single use plastics will be outlawed across Kenya’s parks and beaches. 


Kenyan Ban’s Mixed Success


Just one year following the ban, Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) proudly reported that 80% of the nation’s population no longer used single-use plastic bags. One NEMA official deemed the ban a “resounding success,” despite mounting contrary evidence.

Meanwhile, the poor population has been switching to flimsy, China-made non-woven bags because they are as cheap as plastic bags, despite government’s recommendations to use only quality non-woven products.

The Chinese alternatives are so flimsy that they are thrown away after a single use, which defeats the purpose of the ban. Steadily, it looks like plastic is making a comeback to the nation’s streets.

What’s more, small business use smuggled plastic bags because they risk losing clients to the competition that still offers plastic bags for free. Not even the hefty fines and jail time risk deter small businesses as their survival is at stake.

Authorities are trying to tackle these issues with fines and arrests. At some point, they even shut down entire farmers markets for widespread noncompliance with the ban. But nothing seems to stop plastic bags from making their way back to Kenya from neighboring countries.

Kenyan authorities place the blame for the problem on “permeable” borders, but there are many more factors at stake (see our takeaways below).


Not All Eco Tote Bags Are Created Equal 


Except for the poorer segments of the population, the general public is turning to reusable eco tote bags and other plastic bag alternatives, such as buckets, bowls, and reusable heavy canvas and polypropylene tote bags. Kenyan Kiondo bags are more and more popular due to the plastic bag ban despite being the most expensive ban-compliant alternative.

However, the Kenyan market continues to be flooded with cheaper plastic bag alternatives like the Chinese non-woven bags which tend to rip after a single use and cannot be recycled. But since they are as cheap as a plastic bag, the Chinese imports are still picked over the non-woven bags produced locally.

In August 2019, the government indirectly banned cheaper, low-gauge non-woven bags by adopting quality standards for reusable shopping bags nationwide. However, because authorities have failed to educate the public on which bags are banned and which are allowed, people are still using the low-quality imports.

Plus, many business owners still fear being fined or ending up in jail, even though many of them sell the right bags.


Kenya’s Plastic Bag Ban - Takeaways


What have we learned from Kenya’s strict plastic bag ban? Enforcing a strict plastic bag ban will not guarantee success. The Kenyan government should have thought thoroughly a phase-out plan for a truly successful ban. Here’s what authorities failed to take into account before setting the ban.

You Need to Give the Population Real Alternatives

Before slapping people with hundreds of dollars in fines and throwing them into jail for using a plastic bag, authorities should have given them real alternatives.

Reusable non-woven bags were touted as an eco-friendly alternative but because of poverty, people have turned to cheaper and flimsier alternatives that literally defeated the ban.

Plus, non-woven bags are not as biodegradable as government officials like to think. Some of them take more than three years to completely degrade in soil.

Poverty + Lack of Education = Major Roadblock 

A major obstacle to the Kenyan plastic bag ban’s success is the unfortunate mix of poverty and lack of education. In some parts of Kenya people are literally too poor to switch to eco-friendly alternatives overnight.

What’s more, because of the lack of education and the power of habit, customers still pressure sellers into giving them free plastic bags with their produce or else they’d take their business elsewhere. This phenomenon has led to a thriving black market of plastic bags smuggled from neighboring African countries.

Many People May Lose their Jobs after an Abrupt Plastic Ban 

Before the ban, there were 170 producers of plastics in Kenya. The ban led to the disappearance of 60,000 to 100,000 jobs from the sector and related industries. Around 3% of the country’s workforce was affected by the ban. Yet, the government did nothing to offset the social costs of its strict law against plastic bags.

Small Businesses May Lose Profits

Many small grocery sellers had to shell out the money for eco tote bags out of their own pockets to avoid losing customers. The fiber bags that the government now wants people to use are six times more expensive than their plastic alternatives. Since there are not any subsidies to offset the extra costs, small businesses are stuck with the diminished profits.