By the Blouin News Business staff

Will Tanzania’s latest crackdown on plastic bags work?

by in Africa.

A hen finds a dry spot on a pile of garbage amidst heavy flooding in the Mikocheni area of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on April 12, 2014. DANIEL HAYDUK/AFP/Getty Images

Piles of garbage amidst heavy flooding in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on April 12, 2014. DANIEL HAYDUK/AFP/Getty Images

Tanzania announced on Tuesday that the manufacturing and importing of plastic bags in the country was now banned. And this time the government hopes to put some teeth into the restrictions– the National Environment Management Council will take legal action against those found in violation of the law.

Zanzibar has been far ahead of the rest of the country on this issue, and is the successful model that can be emulated nationwide. The city banned the use of plastic bags under 100 microns in 2005, and offenders are fined up to $2,000 and/or six months in prison. In 2006 Tanzania first prepared regulations regarding the use of thin plastic bags (those under 30 microns, which are not durable and are easily blown away in the wind).

But the reality on the ground remained exactly the same for years, with the uncontrolled accumulation of plastic bags causing enormous problems. The bags (most often littered everywhere) were far worse than just a nationwide eyesore. They contaminated the environment, choked wildlife, and clogged storm drains. Furthermore, the common practice of using plastic bags to store hot food might cause cancer, blindness, and indigestion, according to the Deputy Minister of State for Environment in the Vice-President’s Office, Stephen Masele. Even when disposed of in a landfill, the bags take up to 1,000 years to decompose, while burning them is hardly a better option, given the noxious fumes they release.

On September 5, 2011, Zanzibar banned the importation, manufacture, and use of all plastic bags and encouraged the use of bio-degradable materials instead, according to AllAfrica.com. And implementation has gone over well, with paper bags now the standard in shops. But Tanzania’s national govenment lagged far behind, and only on August 15, 2013, did it issue a strong directive banning plastic bags. While it made for good headlines, the ban did not make any difference in daily transactions, where thin plastic bags were routinely given out at shops for all purchases. Tuesday’s announcement banning the manufacturing and imports of plastic bags, to be enforced by legal penalties, will hopefully be a turning point for the country.

For a regional reference, South Africa introduced laws in May 2003 forcing shopkeepers to hand out thicker, stronger plastic bags that are easily recycled– or face a $12,260 fine or 10 years in jail. Prior to this, the country’s environmental authorities estimated that 8 billion bags were being used per year, and most were littered. Things have much improved since then.

But the number of plastic bags used in the U.S. dwarfs anywhere else. Out of a global total estimated to be between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags used per year, the U.S. accounts for 380 billion, with 90% used just once before disposal. Individual municipalities have taken initiatives to ban plastic bags, but not without difficulties. Sometimes it is from Republican legislators opposed to any new regulations affecting citizens’ choices, regardless of environmental impact. But the U.S. plastic manufacturing industry is also a powerful opponent of bans.

That sector is booming with low oil and natural gas prices, having added 60,000 jobs since mid-2009 (a 12% increase). Plastic manufacturing companies have announced $47 billion in investments since 2010, and the American Chemistry Council, a trade group, projects that the industry will add 127,500 direct jobs over the next decade.

While plastic bag bans would reduce demand and potentially threaten some of these jobs, there may be a middle ground: companies have spent millions developing plastic bags that biodegrade rapidly. Combined with increased recycling efforts, this would be a solid compromise.