Rwanda’s Plastic-Bag Black Market

| by Ocean Wise

In 2008, Rwanda became one of the first nations to ban the production, import, sale, and use of plastic bags and packaging. The capital, Kigali, has been called the cleanest city in Africa. For a country with a recent history of genocide followed by painful reconciliation, this sounds like a good-news story. Except a different scene is emerging at Rwanda’s border.

According to The New York Times, women are walking across the border from the Democratic Republic of Congo with plastic bags taped to their bodies, hidden under clothing, wrapped around arms. Smugglers can make a week’s income reselling plastic bags, which are furtively used in Rwandan markets and by street vendors. However, if they’re caught, smugglers can be fined hundreds of dollars. As a market worker told Al Jazeera, “we can’t afford to pay the fine, so we just have to wait until they let us out, sometimes days later.”

Smugglers can make a week’s income off reselling plastic bags, which are furtively used in Rwandan markets and by street vendors.

Strict prohibition may dramatically decrease litter, but at what cost? How do we curb our addiction to the convenience of single-use plastics? It’s a question that countries, regions and municipalities around the world are grappling with, each in their own way. The answer ranges from a city tax to country-wide prohibitions, everyone in a race to curb the plastic tide before it swamps our oceans.

Over 80% of marine plastics are thought to come from land-based sources and plastic bags are a major offender. One trillion plastic bags are used globally every year. Once discarded, the bags blow across parks, into trees and the ocean, where they contribute to the staggering quantity of marine plastics. They’re one of the twelve most commonly collected items during beach cleanups.

 One trillion plastic bags are used globally every year.

Once in the ocean, sunlight and waves break plastic objects into progressively smaller pieces. Single-use polyethylene bags tear easily, but they don’t disappear altogether. Tiny plastic particles, fragments, and fibres that measure less than five millimetres are called microplastics and these can affect marine organisms big and small. Scientists agree that removing microplastics from the ocean will be impossible. Even if it were feasible to filter 1.3 billion cubic kilometres of water, the process would decimate the plankton communities that support marine ecosystems. The solution? Stop more plastic from entering the ocean in the first place.

Strict prohibition may dramatically decrease litter, but at what cost?

Developing countries often lack the infrastructure or resources to manage waste. Trash is often burned, releasing toxic chemicals into the air, or discarded, where it collects in heaps. Plastic bags wash downstream and clog drains, causing floods or forming pools that breed malaria-infected mosquitoes.

Prohibitions on plastic bags have become common across Africa. Kenya recently ushered in a ban with harsh penalties, including up to four years’ imprisonment for manufacturers, distributors, and vendors of plastic bags. In 2013, Cameroon began enforcing a 1996 law with similar punishments: $20,000 in fines and up to five years in jail. Eritrea, Morocco, Mauritania, and Tanzania have also banned bags. But Rwanda’s eradication of single-use plastic bags has been particularly meticulous.

Beginning in 2004, the Rwandan government made it illegal for stores to distribute plastic bags to customers. Tax incentives were provided to encourage former plastic producers to begin recycling bags. Signs at the border and the airport announce the ban, and representatives of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority search travelers and their belongings to confiscate bags. On the last Saturday of every month, Rwandans participate in Umuganda, a nation-wide community service program that includes collecting litter.

Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, has been called the cleanest city in Africa.

Managing the environment and natural resources is a central component of the government’s 20-year plan to overcome “poverty and division.” Like many developing nations, Rwanda has experienced widespread deforestation, biodiversity loss, water pollution, and — until recently — a massive accumulation of garbage. But the enforcement measures have become authoritarian. If a company illegally produces plastics, its executives can be imprisoned. Stores that wrap goods in plastic have been closed.

In the developed world, solutions for pollution are vast, ranging from the stick to the carrot: bans, regulations, taxes or industry perks for good behavior. While developed countries mull over how to best eradicate cheap, single-use plastic from daily life, Rwanda, and many African countries, took the first painful steps over a decade ago.