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Kenya ban on plastics threatened by smugglers

Plastic bags are illegal in Kenya, and have largely disappeared from many parts of the country. But there is still a black market for them and, thanks to smugglers, they are easy to find in Koyonzo, both in the marketplace and on the ground as trash.

In August 2017, Kenya implemented a total ban on single-use plastic bags, a move celebrated by environmentalists around the world and one that reflects a growing global trend to ban the disposable products. With the government threatening large fines and even prison sentences for violators, the effects were immediately noticeable and bag litter reduced substantially. However, while the ban has largely been considered a success bags have not disappeared entirely. In certain regions, they are still being smuggled into the country.

In East Africa, Rwanda is the only other country to have successfully implemented such a ban, meaning that there are plenty of places smugglers can get plastic bags and bring them across the Kenyan border to sell on the black market. Kenya is bordered by five countries, and the Ugandan border along Lake Victoria has emerged as a high-traffic area for illicit bags.

Koyonzo, located in Kakamega County in Western Kenya, is a perfect example of this plastic spillover. The town lies just 50 kilometers from the Busia border crossing, a joint facility run by Kenya and Uganda.

This cross-border exchange is a boon for the economy, but can also make enforcing the plastic bag ban a nightmare. Here it’s easy to see why, despite recent smuggling busts and cooperation between the two governments, the illegal bag trade has become such an issue.

Just steps across the official boundary, in Uganda, plastic bags are ubiquitous. A shoe store along the border fence displays piles of sneakers individually wrapped in plastic, while every other vendor in sight hands their product to the customer in a plastic bag. The sheer number of people crossing, combined with the availability of plastic bags on the Ugandan side, means sneaking them across the porous border is relatively easy.

This issue has prompted many Kenyan leaders to call for bans in Uganda and other neighboring countries, and ideally a regional ban among the East African community.

John Baraza Wangwe, the environmental minister of Kakamega county and also a participant in the Koyonzo cleanup, stressed the importance of regional cooperation on the issue.

“We share a common water source, plastic waste effects drainage and marine life within our rivers and lakes. This issue affects everyone,” says Wangwe. “There should be a regional approach among the East African community to banning plastic bags. To ensure that all countries partake in and enforce the law.”

As more bag bans come into effect, it has become apparent that their success often depends on regional cooperation and the capacity to manage the flow of plastics from other countries.

Rwanda, which has banbed plastic bags since 2008, is constantly battling the issue of smuggling. Often called the cleanest nation in Africa, the border Rwanda shares with the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a major source of illicit plastics, and border officials are kept busy apprehending and prosecuting smugglers. Morocco, which was formerly the world’s second-largest consumer of plastic bags behind the United States, has also had to deal with similar issues after implementing a ban in 2017. In the first year of enforcement, authorities seized over 420 tons of illegal bags.

While plastic bag smuggling remains an issue in Kenya, local authorities have vowed to crack down on those who defy the law, and despite some issues many countries are now looking to the ban as a model example. In East Africa, countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan are considering similar laws on single-use plastic bags. This growing momentum means that a regional ban in East Africa could indeed become a reality, especially as countries around the world increasingly look for ways to beat plastic pollution.

The World Environment Day on June 5 will be celebrated this year under the theme of "Beat Plastic Pollution"

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