Paper Bag or … What? Plastic Ones Are Getting Banned

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Shoppers in Kenya use an estimated 100 million plastic bags a year, many of which wind up in landfills like this one in Nairobi. Credit: Ben Curtis/Associated Press

A few decades ago – sometime in the ’80’s – I attended a competition at an A&P supermarket on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. It was a face off between baggers using paper versus plastic bags. The winner’s name (and bag type) is long lost to history. ‘Just as well, too, as the whole idea was ill conceived – as, it turns out, was the idea of introducing plastic bags in supermarkets.

An increasing number of American communities are, or are considering, banning them altogether. England instituted a 5p (pence) per bag charge a few years ago – resulting in a drop of more than 75% in the use of them within a year.

Then there’s Kenya. That country, with a population of 48.5 million, used to use something approaching 100 million plastic grocery bags a year. No more. It is now illegal to either manufacture in or import plastic bags to that country. Even visitors are required to leave plastic bags containing duty free goods at their port of entry – usually the international airport in Nairobi.

The accumulations of plastic bags in land fills had reached an alarming level. So had the death of cattle who’d ingested plastic bags.

The New York Times reported that, “The new rule, announced in March and put into effect on Monday August 28), also means that garbage bags will be taken off supermarket shelves and visitors entering Kenya will be required to leave their duty-free shopping bags at the airport.

Kenya joins more than 40 other countries including China, the Netherlands and France that have introduced taxes on bags or limited or prohibited their use,” The Times noted.

In Rwanda, plastic bags are illegal, and visitors are searched at the airport. As noted, Britain introduced a 5 pence charge at stores in 2015, leading to a plunge of more than 80 percent in the use of plastic bags. There are no nationwide restrictions on the use of plastic bags in the United States, though states like California and Hawaii ban nonbiodegradable bags.

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Fruit and vegetable sellers were at a loss for how to market their produce, and some residents mistook ordinary traffic controllers for law enforcement officials looking to punish consumers who violated the new law. In informal settlements, where most of the city’s residents live, plastic bags are used as “flying toilets” — holding human waste in the absence of a proper sewage system.

Judy Wakhungu, Kenya’s environment minister, tried to allay people’s fears, telling Reuters that the ban was primarily aimed at manufacturers and suppliers. “Ordinary wananchi will not be harmed,” she said, using a Kiswahili word for “common person.”

Kenya tried to ban the use of plastic bags in 2007 and 2011, but the limits were not put in place.

The new regulations call for a fine of $19,000 to $38,000 or a four-year jail term for those manufacturing or importing plastic bags in Kenya. Plastics used in primary industrial packaging are exempt, according to the National Environment Management Authority, although it said that the new regulation would prohibit retailers from selling garbage bags.

Kenyans have had several months to adjust to the idea of the new rules, a period during which big supermarket chains like Nakumatt and the French multinational retail giant Carrefour began offering cloth bags instead of plastic. The country’s High Court last week rejected a case filed by two plastic bag importers to drop the ban, saying that protecting the environment was more important than the companies’ commercial interests.

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Worsening Air Pollution In Africa Costs Many Lives, Untold Sums

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Air pollution in parts of Africa has reached near crisis levels. The Guardian reported recently that between 1990 and 2013, deaths from airborne particulate matter increased 35% across the continent. Deaths from polluted air in houses also increased during that period, but ‘only’ by 18%, a researcher at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development told the paper.

The air pollution problem has become so bad that it is resulting in more premature deaths than either unsafe water or childhood nutrition issues. A study by a global policy forum has found that at current rates of increase in outdoor and indoor pollution, a number of African countries appear to be headed for crisis conditions not unlike those found in China and India. (Schools were closed for three days earlier this month in Delhi, India, because the air pollution was so bad, the BBC reported on November 6th.)

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The worst pollution in Delhi air in 17 years.  Getti Images via The BBC

Exhaust fumes are a large contributor to the problem, as are open cooking fires, power plants and the burning of rubbish – a widespread practice because, as one wag put it a few decades ago, “there’s no such place as ‘away’” when stuff is discarded: Once thrown out, most waste tends to stay ‘there’ for very long periods of time, and as more and more stuff is thrown out, viable storage areas become fewer and fewer.

By one measure, Onitsha, Nigeria, is the world’s most polluted city. By another measure, that dubious title goes to Zabol, in eastern Iran, on that country’s border with Afghanistan.)

For Africa as a whole, the estimated economic cost of premature air pollution deaths in 2013 was roughly $215bn (£175bn) a year for outdoor air pollution, and $232bn for household, or indoor, air pollution.

“This mega-trend is set to continue to unfold throughout this century<, says Rana Roy, the author of one study on the problem. “It suggests that current means of transportation and energy generation in African cities are not sustainable,” said Roy. “Alternative models to those imported from industrialized economies, such as dependence on the individual automobile, are necessary.

“It is striking that air pollution costs in Africa are rising in spite of slow industrialization, and even de-industrialization in many countries. Should this latter trend successfully be reversed, the air pollution challenge would worsen faster, unless radically new approaches and technologies were put to use.

“The ‘new’ problem of outdoor air pollution is too large to be ignored or deferred to tomorrow’s agenda. At the same time, Africa cannot afford to ignore the ‘old’ problem of household pollution or to consider it largely solved: it is only a few high-income countries – Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritius, Morocco, Seychelles and Tunisia – that can afford to view the problem of air pollution as being a problem of outdoor particulate pollution alone.”

The study stresses that there is not nearly enough knowledge of the sources of air pollution and its impact in much of Africa. It quotes UK scientist Mathew Evans, professor of atmospheric chemistry at York University, who is leading a large-scale investigation of air pollution in west Africa.

“London and Lagos have entirely different air quality problems. In cities such as London, it’s mainly due to the burning of hydrocarbons for transport. African pollution isn’t like that. There is the burning of rubbish, cooking indoors with inefficient fuel stoves, millions of steel diesel electricity generators, cars which have had the catalytic converters removed and petrochemical plants, all pushing pollutants into the air over the cities. Compounds such as sulphur dioxide, benzene and carbon monoxide, that haven’t been issues in western cities for decades, may be a significant problem in African cities. We simply don’t know.”

Whereas China has reached a level of development that has allowed it to concentrate on solving air pollution, most African countries must grapple with several major environmental burdens at the same time, said the report.