Plastic bags for sale in Nairobi. Kenya's ban on the use of plastic bags comes into effect today. Picture: John Okoyo/Xinhau

Nairobi - A ban on plastic bags came into force on Monday in Kenya and those found violating the new regulation could be receive maximum fines of $38 000 (over R494 000) or a four-year jail term.

The ban applies to the use, manufacture, and importation of plastic shopping bags and gives a minimum fine of about $19 000 or up to a year imprisonment, according to Kenyan government. Exemptions were made for those producing plastic bags for industrial purposes.

Thin plastic shopping bags litter the streets of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, and contribute to towering piles at dump sites. The Kenyan government says the bags harm the environment, block sewers and don't decompose. Some 100 million plastic bags are handed out every year in Kenya by supermarkets alone, according to the U.N. Environment Program.

Similar bans have been implemented in other African countries such as Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Mauritania and Malawi.

Some Kenyan manufacturers have said the ban will cost jobs but Environment Minister Judi Wakhungu last week said more jobs will be created from making bags from environment-friendly materials.

The plastic bags have long been identified as a major cause of environmental damage and health problems, killing birds, fish and other animals that mistake them for food, said the UN environment agency. The bags also damage agricultural land, pollute tourist sites and provide breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carry malaria and dengue fever.

Plastic bags contribute to the 8 million tons of plastic that is carried into the ocean every year. At current rates, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish, according to the UN agency.

AP