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Kenya's recent plastic bag ban is being called the strictest in the world, but enforcement isn't intended to hurt ordinary citizens.

August 29, 2017

In the wake of a plastic crisis affecting the environment, some local governments in the United States have attempted to pass regulations attempting to curb the use of disposable plastic bags—either by enacting bag fees or banning them entirely. And last year, California became the first state to ban the grocery store staple statewide with a law allowing cities and counties to fine grocery stores in violation up to $1,000 a day. While some may argue that these rules are too strict, and others may argue they're not strict enough, we can all probably agree on this: It's nothing compared to the newly enacted plastic bag ban in Kenya where violators can be fined up to $38,000 or face up to four years in prison.

Kenya's plastic bag law, which went into effect on Monday, is being called one of the toughest in the world. The strict punishments can be handed down to anyone producing, selling or even carrying disposable plastic bags; however, the government has stressed that the intent of the law is to reduce the bags' environmental impact—not to throw Kenyans in jail. The National Environment Management Authority said that, for now, officers will only confiscate bags and that enforcement would initially target manufacturers and suppliers, not users. "Ordinary [people] will not be harmed," Kenya's Environment Minister Judy Wakhungu told Reuters.

Plastic bags have become a major environmental scourge in Kenya, but opponents of the law argue that banning the bags will hurt those ordinary people worse than any enforcement. "It may look very fashionable in international circles," Kenneth Okoth, a member of Parliament who represents Kibera, a slum within the city of Nairobi, told NPR. "But in reality, in a place like Kibera, we still need those plastics." Okoth said that beyond the economic impact, plastic bags also have a practical use as makeshift toilets. "It's not the plastic's fault," he continued. "It's a lack of a system to collect the plastic and reuse it and make a value chain out of it beyond that first usage." And Kenya certainly isn't fighting this battle alone: Similar bans already exist in other African countries such as Rwanda, Mauritania, and Eritrea.

Still, Wakhungu insists that something must be done. "Plastic bags now constitute the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya," she told the BBC. "This has become our environmental nightmare that we must defeat by all means."