Kenyans producing, selling or even using plastic bags risk up to four years’ jail or fines of US$40,000 under the world’s toughest law aimed at reducing plastic pollution.

The East African nation today joined more than 40 other countries that have banned, partly banned or taxed single-use plastic bags, including China, France, Rwanda and Italy.

Reuters Newsagency reports many bags drift into the ocean, strangling turtles, suffocating seabirds and filling the stomachs of dolphins and whales with waste until they die of starvation.

“If we continue like this, by 2050, we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish,” said Dr Habib El-Habr, an expert on marine litter working with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Kenya.

Plastic bags, which Dr El-Habr says take between 500 to 1000 years to break down, also enter the human food chain through fish and other animals.

In Nairobi’s slaughterhouses, some cows destined for human consumption had 20 bags removed from their stomachs.

“This is something we didn’t get 10 years ago but now its almost on a daily basis,” said county vet Mbuthi Kinyanjui as he watched men in bloodied white uniforms scoop sodden plastic bags from the stomachs of cow carcases.

Reuters reports Kenya’s law allows police to go after anyone even carrying a plastic bag, but Kenya’s Environment Minister Judy Wakhungu said enforcement would initially be directed at manufacturers and suppliers.

“Ordinary wananchi will not be harmed,” she said, using a Kiswahili word for “common man”.

It took Kenya three attempts over 10 years to finally pass the ban, and not everyone is a fan.

Samuel Matonda, spokesman for the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, said it would cost 60,000 jobs and force 176 manufacturers to close.

Kenya is a major exporter of plastic bags to the region.

“The knock-on effects will be very severe,” Mr Matonda said.

“It will even affect the women who sell vegetables in the market, how will their customers carry their shopping home?”

Major Kenyan supermarket chains like France’s Carrefour and Nakumatt have already started offering customers cloth bags as alternatives.