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From Everybody’s Darling to Enfant Terrible
They are only in use for a couple of minutes. But they will be irksome problems for 1,000 years. They are plastic bags. More than almost any other everyday item, they represent the environmental pollution created by single-use plastic.
Over the next minute alone, about 10 million plastic bags will be used worldwide. But more and more governments are determined to stem the flood of single-use plastic by banning plastic bags or at least making them much more expensive. In late 2019, bans were in force in 91 countries, including 34 in Africa.
Prison Terms Because of a Plastic Bag?
Kenya’s anti-plastic bag law is considered to be the toughest in the world. The importation, sale and use of plastic bags are penalized by fines of up to $40,000 or up to four years in prison. Even tourists risk hassles as they enter the country if they have them in their luggage. But what does this mean for everyday life in Kenya? The country has gone from one extreme to another.
Before the prohibition in August 2017, the thin-walled plastic bags were everywhere. About 100 million were used every year in supermarkets alone, not to mention countless more in street markets. Discarded bags were scattered across cities and the countryside, despoiling the entire ecosystem.
The New Tidiness Had a Dark Side And now?
Trash in the form of plastic bags has nearly disappeared from Kenya. That’s the case in Rwanda as well. The pioneer of plastic-bag prohibition was reputed to be one of the cleanest countries on the planet after the ban was in effect for ten years and was cited as a positive example in the UN report “Single-Use Plastics. A Road Map for Sustainability” (UNEP, 2018).
But the new tidiness has some flaws, whether in Rwanda, Kenya or other countries that quickly took a radical approach and banned plastic bags. No one has come up with an equally handy or cheap substitute for these thin-walled polyethylene objects. The lack of a solution has caused social and economic problems and complicated everyday life. Jobs were lost in the plastics industry. Stores have had a hard time packaging perishable foods hygienically and have decried the loss of revenue. The poor can’t afford the more expensive compostable bags. The result is the smuggling of plastic bags from neighboring countries and a lively black market trade.
Bans on Plastic Bags Are Only a Part of the Solution
In some ways, however, the ban has had a positive impact in Kenya. It has anchored environmental protection in public awareness and has created incentives for improving waste disposal, recycling more plastic, and developing sustainable packaging. Yet not every alternative makes ecological sense. For example, enormous quantities of water are required to manufacture paper bags.
The UN report “Single-Use Plastics” makes it clear that bans on plastic bags are not the entire solution. Bags strewn across the landscape are often just a symptom of bigger problems, such as an inadequate waste and recycling infrastructure and a lack of affordable alternatives. But even if adjustments are made to the underlying conditions, the bans could be “the first step toward a comprehensive strategy to reduce plastic waste and replace single-use plastic with environmentally alternatives,” the authors said in their analysis.
Plastics are our current focus. On single-use plastic as a burden on society – and how we can deal with the problem. And on the question of whether plastic can be a solution. You can find more on the topic “Plastic – Breakthrough and Burden” in the latest edition of our magazine ESSENTIAL.
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