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Clogged by plastic bags, Africa begins banning them

Several African countries have taken bold new measures to tackle the region's severe waste-management problems.

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Once a month, John Ebiwari drags an iron rake through the open sewer that runs in front of his house in Nigeria's sprawling commercial capital of Lagos and scoops out the discarded plastic bags that block the flow of bubbling black filth.

On the last Saturday of each month Lagos police officers armed with big sticks make sure residents fulfill their legal duty and clean up their neighborhoods for 'Sanitation Day.'

The clean up provides a minimum of order in Lagos. But, in a move more drastic than seen in most Western countries, several African nations are tackling the scourge by banning or restricting use of plastic bags.

The United Nations estimates that only 10 percent of rubbish in Africa makes it to dumps, with the rest left to rot in communities or burned in acrid bonfires.

As Africans increasingly live in cities, waste management has become a real development problem.

Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda have passed laws banning or restricting the use of a main culprit: the ordinary plastic grocery bag.

By the end of the year, Kenya is expected to follow suit.

More than 48 million plastic bags are produced in Kenya each year, according to the UN.

"We need to ban these flimsy plastic bags, which we only use once and dispose of, because all of them make their way into the environment," says environmentalist Joseph Gondi of Kenya's prominent Green Belt Movement, founded by 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. "You may collect them and say you are taking them to the dump site, but we do not have well managed landfill sites here in Kenya."

The bags are more than a nuisance. Blocked sewers help spread disease. Farmers complain that precious livestock are choking to death on plastic bags, ruining their livelihoods, while rubbish-strewn streets and countryside are counter-productive for Kenya's tourism-based economy.

A clean-up is under way. Five years ago the downtown area of Kenya's capital Nairobi was dirty and unkempt, say residents.

But an army of street cleaners, lots of new litter bins, and a tree-planting program – spearheaded by the Green Belt Movement – have had a dramatic impact for the better.

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