Plastic bag bans are spreading. But are they truly effective?

Kenya has the strictest penalties for bag use, but the consumer alternatives to plastic have come with growing pains.

In the open-air Wakulima Market thin plastic shopping bags have disappeared, banished by Kenya’s national bag ban. Produce sellers in this busy agricultural hub 95 miles northwest of Nairobi now pack perishables in thicker bags made of synthetic fabric.

As James Wakibia, citizen activist, leads the way along narrow walkways that snake around vegetable stalls, he shrugs at the irony. Plastic bags replaced by plastic bags. He is the 36-year-old face of the social media campaign that prompted the ban in 2017 and says an imperfect ban is better than none.

“Okay, they are polypropylene, but they’re reusable and they’re not the thin bags that can be carried by the wind,” he says. “The UN says that Kenyans were using 100 million bags a year by supermarkets alone, so we have saved 100 million bags. I would rate success at 80 percent.”

Often described as the world’s number one consumer product, as well as the most ubiquitous, shopping bags are now among the world’s most-banned. As of last July, the United Nations counted 127 nations that have banned or taxed bags‒and bag regulations have proliferated so quickly, especially at the local level, that even an Al Qaeda-backed terrorist group joined in‒banning plastic shopping bags last summer as “a serious threat to the well-being of humans and animals alike.”