Paper Bag or … What? Plastic Ones Are Getting Banned


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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