Rwanda’s capital Kigali contrasts well with Lilongwe. Of course, they are both cities under construction. However, Kigali is neat.
A journalist for UK’s Guardian newspaper Émilie Clavel recently travelled to Kigali and writes in an article titled Think you can’t live without plastic bags? Consider this: Rwanda did it.
“My luggage was searched at the border, and the authorities confiscated some of my belongings. No, I was not trying to smuggle drugs or weapons. The offenders? Three plastic bags I used to carry my shampoo and dirty laundry.
“At Kigali International Airport, a sign warns visitors that plastic bags will be confiscated. Agents from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority [Rema] cut the plastic wrapping off negligent travellers’ suitcases. Throughout the country, businesses have been forced to replace plastic carrier bags with paper ones,” she writes.
Clavel further notes that the ban was a bold move and it paid off.
“As soon as I set foot in Rwanda from neighbouring Uganda, it struck me. It’s clean. Looking out the window of the bus that was taking me to Kigali, I could see none of the mountains of rubbish I’d grown accustomed to in other African countries. No plastic carrier bags floating in the wind or stranded on a tree branch,” she explains.
In fact, she does not stop there.
Upon arrival in Kigali, she adds, the contrast is even more evident.
“With its lovely green squares and wide boulevards, the Rwandan capital is one of the most beautiful cities in Africa. And it’s immaculate,” she observes.
If Clavel would, one day, land at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) in Lilongwe and, perhaps, drive around the capital city, what would she write?
Surely, she would write of seeing no signs, at KIA, warning visitors that plastic bags will be confiscated. She will write of her three plastic bags—where she carries laundry and dirty stuff—not being confiscated.
In fact, while being driven in a taxi from KIA to Lilongwe’s central business district (CBD), Clavel would write, convincingly, of pavements littered with non-biodegradable plastic bags.
Upon arriving in the CBD and upon being taken around the city, Clavel would marvel at the mountains of carelessly disposed plastic bags in almost every corner of the city. Surely, Clavel would not hesitate to call Lilongwe one of the dirtiest cities in Africa.
It is not just Lilongwe. The story is similar to that of Blantyre, Mzuzu, Zomba and—simply put, everywhere across the country. Surely, Malawi is a country in dirt.
However, it is not that the government does not understand the scale of the problem. It does. The 1996 Environmental Management Act (EMA) and subsequent environment-related policies underline the importance of careful waste management in the country.
But laws, alone, are not the end Malawi seeks to manage its environment. Implementation is key. That is why as part of protecting the environment, government, in 2013, banned the production, circulation, sale and use of plastic papers that are less than 60 microns.
The argument against plastic papers—which are not less than 60 microns—is that they do not decompose easily.
The plastic bags, made of depletable natural gas or petroleum resources, are often used only for a matter of minutes. Yet they last in the environment for hundreds of years, shredding into ever-smaller pieces but never fully breaking down.
This, experts argue, has tremendous effect on the environment as they destroy the same soil Malawians depend on to produce their food.
On the one hand, plastic seems a miracle material, with beneficial uses ranging from medical devices to making vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient. On the other, it is a curse: it allows for the seemingly cheap mass production of disposable materials that fill up landfills, cloud the oceans, choke wildlife and sully scenes.
Filled with additives that lack a safety record, experts have, over the years, linked plastics with a slew of health concerns, including certain types of cancer and infertility. Not only that. For predominant agricultural nations such as Malawi, non-biodegradable plastic destroys the same soil needed for farming.
While plastics can be used and recycled wisely, the majority of those produced are neither. Perhaps no other item symbolises the problems of our throwaway culture more than the single-use plastic bag.
This explains the reason Malawi government wants any plastic paper less than 60 microns banned. However, though the ban was made in 2013, it was not enforced until July 1 this year.
The delay in enforcement was made to give space to plastic manufacturers to adjust to the required changes. However, two weeks after the resumption of the enforcement, there is still little compliance from producers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers.
But in an interview with The Nation Principal Secretary responsible for the environment in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining Dr Yanira Ntupanyama says her ministry is enforcing the thin plastics ban at two levels.
The first level is primary sources—herein production companies, distribution shops and major retail shops, she says.
“In order to enforce the ban at the source, from 1st July, 2015, inspectors and officers from Environmental Affairs Department have been inspecting several retails shops, distribution shops and manufacturers in Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu and Zomba.
“During these inspections manufacturers, distributors and retail shops which were found not complying with the ban were given warning letters for non-compliance. The warning letters have compelled most manufacturers, distributors and retail shops to start complying with the ban,” says Ntupanyama.
The second level, she adds, is that of the secondary sources of plastics include sources such as vendors, small shops (hawkers), eateries and other small outlets that give out plastic bags.
“For the first two months, the ministry will not target vendors and small shops [hawkers] in markets located in locations and trading centres directly through inspections. The ministry will, however, reach out to them through awareness campaigns but will rely on other enforcement agencies such as city councils to enforce the ban through inspections and city patrols,” she says.
She further says that the ministry is confident that after achieving 100 percent compliance at source by stopping manufacturing and distribution, all small shops and vendors will eventually run out of thin plastics in their stocks.
But can Malawi make non-biodegradable polythene bags really vanish, like did Rwanda?
As a post-genocide nation with a developing economy, Rwanda could have dismissed the bag ban as unnecessary. In fact, it could have listened to manufacturers who always advance the ‘job losses’ argument. But it did not.
In 2008, while the rest of the world was barely starting to consider a tax on single-use plastic bags, the nation decided to ban them completely.
Or Malawi can adopt South Africa’s experience which banned very thin non-biodegradable bags in 2003.Thicker bags are taxed.
Botswana’s plastic bag fee, which began in 2007, is credited with cutting bag use in half at major retailers.
All told, at least 20 African countries have announced bans on certain types of plastic bags, to varying levels of effectiveness.
“Plastic bags clearly have a cost to society, one that is not yet fully paid. Reducing disposable bag use is one small part of the move from a throwaway economy to one based on the prudent use of resources, where materials are reused rather than designed for rapid obsolescence,” says Ntupanyama.