The UN called for a “War on Plastic” and Kenya just went nuclear

In February 2017, the UN Environment Program called for a “war on ocean plastic” — a crackdown on things like bottles, plastic bags, and non-reusable packaging that pollute marine ecosystems, rivers and beaches.

Kenya has heeded the call to arms.

Starting this week, the country will have the toughest plastic bag ban of any federal government worldwide. Selling, using or importing plastic bags in the country could mean four years in jail or a $38,000 fine.

The UN’s effort to put a lid on plastic pollution is part of its #CleanSeas campaign, launched last winter during the Economist World Ocean Summit in Bali. “We’ve stood by too long as the problem has gotten worse. It must stop,” Erik Solheim, Head of UNEP, said at the time. Humans go through more than 300 tons of plastic each year, UNEP pointed out, and roughly 80 percent of the garbage in the ocean is plastic — a problem that destroys marine ecosystems and fisheries, resulting in tens of billions of dollars in damage.

“If we continue like this, by 2050, we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish,” Habib El-Habr, an expert on ocean pollution working for UNEP in Kenya, told Reuters. It sounds like an exaggeration, but studies cited by the UN indeed found that to be the case — more plastic than fish by 2050; additionally, 99 percent of seabirds will have ingested plastic. By that same year, the UN said, human plastic consumption will have to grow to three or four times what it is now, if we continue to use it at the rate we currently do.

Kenya has now become one of more than 40 countries worldwide to place limits or taxes on plastic bags, alongside countries from the UK to China to other African countries, including Mauritania, Eritrea and Rwanda, where new arrivals are searched for plastic bags at the airport.

The problem is particularly acute in Kenya. “It is a toxin that we must get rid of,” Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s environment secretary, told reporters. “It’s affecting our water. It’s affecting our livestock and, even worse, we are ingesting this as human beings.” Reuters reports that some cows at slaughter houses in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, have to have 20 plastic bags removed from their stomachs.

Wakhungu emphasized that, while the law technically allows police to go after anyone carrying a bag, authorities will initially be looking at manufacturers and corporations that sell bags, bottles and other plastic packaging, not everyday grocery shoppers.

Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation reported that, in Nairobi on Monday, there was some confusion about what was and wasn’t allowed as the ban went into effect. One businesswoman said she was avoiding goods packed in polyethylene. “I don’t want to be arrested,” she said. “I’d rather leave them behind than pay [a fine]. Right now the police are on high alert.”