Rwanda: Plastic Bags Are Not a Solution

In The New Times publication of August 28, 2012, a complaint on the ban of plastic packaging materials was reported to affect local traders, especially exporters, as they struggle to import the expensive materials, before re-exporting finished products.

REMA would like to make clarifications as follows: the policy of banning the use of plastics didn’t come suddenly. It was adopted after studies demonstrated the significant negative impacts of plastic bags on our environment from which we derive our livelihood and support most of our activities. It passed through normal processes; consultations with all stakeholders and validation.

The law prohibiting the use of plastics in Rwanda, enacted in 2008, was preceded by awareness raising campaigns and local companies and investors were encouraged to invest in alternative packaging materials. Some investors responded positively and they are now benefiting from the ban of plastics; bread packaging papers, carrier/shopping bags made of paper, cloth or banana leaves, materials made from tissues for dry cleaning companies are some of the good examples.

In addition, four plastic recycling companies emerged to cater for other plastics that could be used where there are no alternatives such as tubing used in tree nurseries and garbage bags.

A common approach to deal with wastes especially plastic wastes are codified as a “4Rs strategy, namely Reduce, Re-use, Recycle and Recovery. And all these efforts are done to protect our environment as well as human health.

Rwanda is always recognised for this good initiative and awarded from all over the world, with the most prestigious award in 2008 where the UN Habitat named Kigali the cleanest city in all of Africa, Energy Globe Award to His Excellency the President of the Republic of Rwanda in 2010, World Policy Council Award in 2011, etc. Use of biodegradable materials is not only reducing environmental pollution but also stops the ugly scenes of bags hanging on the trees and all over the land surface (Visual pollution). It is quite surprising to see how some of those who advocate for the reintroduction of plastics in Rwanda, are also the ones who use the cleanliness of the country and the ban of these plastics as their marketing tool when promoting their businesses and when calling for business partners and investors.

It is also important to know that our laws are dynamic not static; there are always ways of adapting to different situations. The same applies for the law prohibiting the use of plastic bags which have provisions for special cases where alternatives to plastics cannot be found. Here, users apply for authorization from REMA, their requests are analysed and authorization granted where appropriate. Exporters have always been given priority to their requests when criteria are met.

The story of success of Rwanda has gone beyond our borders and different countries are coming to Rwanda to learn how this was achieved. Among them we can name the delegations from Cape Verde, Uganda, Congo Brazzaville, Ethiopia and others. The other good news is that the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) recently adopted a bill banning the use of these plastics in the region, which could have taken more time to adopt if Rwanda had not proved the success.

Some people are also proposing to follow steps taken by other countries by imposing tax levy on carrying plastic bags whereby users have to pay a certain fee. This is a first recognition that plastic bags are harmful and they should be eliminated. But is there anyone who knows where this option has succeeded particularly in developing countries in which Rwanda is inclusive? The readers should be informed that some neighbouring countries apply this option, but a one hour visit to those countries is enough to show how inefficient it is.

In 2011, Ryan Kohls, a freelance journalist out of Peterborough, Ontario, narrating the success of Rwanda and how we can be an example to his country Canada, reported the following: “Now three years since the bill was passed, Rwanda remains a plastic bag-free country, and has developed a reputation across the region for its extreme cleanliness. The passing of the bill coupled with Rwanda’s monthly day of cleaning has insured that it remains this way, and will continue for the foreseeable future.

As Toronto debates the future of plastic bags, the story of Rwanda, now more than ever, should be considered. Though different in many fundamental ways, Canada, like Rwanda, relies greatly on its natural resources. Thus, the future health of the land is of pivotal importance in both countries.

Franz Hartmann, Executive Director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance says: “Human civilization has worked just fine without plastic bags. It’s only been in the last 30 years that they’ve reared their ugly head. Getting rid of them completely is the best solution. I don’t see what the issue is.”

Other journalists working for internationally recognized newspapers have also well documented Rwanda best practices in this field and appreciate our achievement.

There is one environment and it must be treated with respect it deserves. The concept of green economy which is our country’s vision will be achieved through different initiatives including; efficient resource use and green consumption and packaging. Rwandans should know that our initiatives can be an eye opener to others, and the world will be better without plastic bags, where Rwanda will have played a leading role.

Let us think globally but act locally.

The author is the Director General of Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA).

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