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Nairobi - Kenya's largest supermarket chain said on Wednesday it had begun using biodegradable bags in response to growing environmental concerns about pollution caused by discarded flimsy plastic shopping bags.
"We are trying to keep away any hazards and it's also part of our social responsibility to care for the environment," said Mercury Anyango, a spokesperson for Nakumatt, Kenya's leading retailer of groceries and household products.
The biodegradable bags were also plastic but specially treated to make them decompose more quickly than older versions that could take 1 000 years to disintegrate, she said.
"Nakumatt began using the new product because the plastic bag is a problem for the environment. It has therefore chosen to support the world environmental programme by using the degradable bags."
Nakumatt uses more than 30 million bags a year at a cost of more than $524-million (R3,5-billion) and Anyango said the change would cost 20 percent more.
In February the United Nations Environment Programme here and Kenyan Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai warned that Kenya faced a growing public health risk from the sea of bags swamping the country.
Plastic shopping bags that were not disposed of properly blocked gutters and drains, choked farm animals and marine wildlife and polluted the soil, they said.
They also "provide several million habitats for mosquitoes to breed that increase the risk of malaria", Maathai said, noting that the disease was a leading cause of infant mortality in Kenya and throughout Africa.
According to the state-run Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis and the National Environmental Management Authority, at least two million plastic bags a year are distributed in the capital alone.