Africa makes strides against plastic bagsIf you ever wondered where all the wild things are, perhaps Maurice Sendak’s beloved childhood book of the same name satisfied your curiosity while inspiring your imagination. In the real world however, the 11.7-million-square-mile continent of Africa offers refuge to the largest and most diverse collection of Mother Nature’s creatures, including such iconic specimens as rhinos, hyenas, elephants, zebras, lions, cheetahs, seals (yes, really!), gorillas, hippos, wildebeest, warthogs, giraffes, orangutans, antelope, crocodiles and even chameleons. This rich biodiversity sets Africa, with its 54 sovereign countries (some of which reach as far as the northern hemisphere all the way to the southern hemisphere in distinctly different temperate zones) well apart from other continents. The highly populous region also enjoys one of the most impressive and incredibly varied deposits of valuable natural resources known to mankind. These materials — everything from rare earth minerals and gold, to diamonds, copper, oil and tropical forest edibles — all have the potential to help locals achieve a better standard of living, but instead, they’ve far too frequently ended up fueled ongoing wars, governmental corruption, social injustice, environmental depletion and wildlife endangerment. For a region endowed with so many natural gifts and such potential for greatness, it’s even sadder still that its landscape has been plagued with what can only be deemed a modern scourge — tattered plastic bag syndrome. Whether in the heart of the open plains or amongst the city streets, discarded plastic bags are commonly found blowing from high treetops, tucked underneath shrubs, clogging waterways and tumbling down roads. In response, a thriving cottage eco-craft industry has for the last decade made a notable albeit modest dent in the problem — whether through the creation of woven fashion accessories, drums or even children’s soccer balls — but various governments have also tackled the issue head on by issuing partial or full plastic bag bans. What follows is a round-up of some of the most notable efforts throughout Africa.
  • South Africa: Sick and tired of treetops bearing tangled, weather-worn clusters of plastic bags (dubbed “African flowers”) that were unwittingly consumed by herbivore species, this country rolled out a plastic bag ban in 2003 with weighty consequences for those who defy it: either cough up $9,500 U.S. or spend as many as 10 years in the slammer.
  • Tanzania: Plastic shopping bags used in the western world are typically far thicker and more durable than those distributed in places like Tanzania, the consequence being a higher incidence of disposal since, at less than 30 microns thick, they’re more likely to break. This 31st largest global country made its plastic bag intolerance well known by enacting a tough-as-nails law for violators. If you sell or import a thin plastic bag, get ready to cough up $2,000 U.S. plus spend six months in jail!
  • Kenya: Just a few short years ago, this agriculturally prolific hub of Africa produced new stocks of polyethylene bags to the tune of 4,000 tons each month. Today, the situation is quite different, perhaps triggered in part by Nobel Peace Prize winner and Assistant Environmental Minister Wangari Mathaai’s revelation that plastic bag waste offered ripe breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Now, the manufacture, import and use of plastic bags up to a thickness of 60 microns are expressly prohibited.
  • Somalia: Despite a 2005 plastic bag ban launched in response to the negative impact the non-biodegradable waste has had on drainage systems and offshore marine life, the Somali landscape is still littered with tattered remnants and no clear plan on how to remedy the situation.
  • The Republic of Congo: With no formal sanitation department or recycling centers in place, it’s not surprising that casually discarded plastic shopping bags have resulted in clogged drains that ultimately trigger widespread floods and landslides. The government has responded to this perpetually vexing issue by entirely prohibiting “the production, import, sale and use” of petroleum-based plastic bags for all consumable goods, although the official ban date has yet to be determined.
  • Rwanda: Quite like so many neighboring regions, this diminutive county realized that it would have to do something drastic to eliminate the post-consumer bag pollution, which had as recently as five years ago made a mess of its waterways, storm drains and even farmland. The solution: a complete ban in September 2008 of all polyethylene bags, whether manufactured, imported, sold or just simply used. In their place, paper bags are being used.
  • Zanzibar: Citing marine life endangerment as well as a negative impact on its tourism industry, Zanzibar placed an outright ban on all plastic bags in 2006, with violators subject to a hefty $1,900 U.S. fine as well as a six-month imprisonment.