Rwanda joins global efforts to mitigate plastic pollution

There’s a global battle against single-use plastics, particularly when it comes to the once-ubiquitous plastic bag. A new report from UN Environment has recently found that at least 127 countries have adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags as of July 2018.

Single-use plastics are described as a blessing and a curse. They have fueled a revolution in commercial and consumer convenience and improved hygiene standards, but also have saturated the world’s coastlines and clogged landfills.

Findings have shown that plastic production has doubled in the last 20 years and is expected to continue to increase, the world urgently needs to reduce its use of single-use plastic bags.

It’s against that context that Rwanda, like many nations around the world, adopted law n° 17/2019 of 10/08/2019 relating to the prohibition of manufacturing, importation, use and sale of plastic carry bags and single-use plastic items, which replaced law n° 57/2008 of 10/09/2008 relating to the prohibition of manufacturing, importation, use and sale of polythene bags in Rwanda and all prior legal provisions contrary to this law are repealed.

Existing law is designed to prohibit manufacturing, use, importation or sale of plastic carry bags and single-use plastic items. However, exception to that would have prior authorisation by relevant authorities.

Besides, the aforesaid law provides administrative sanctions to anyone who, by wholesale, uses and/or deposits plastic carry bags and single-use plastic items in inappropriate places.

More importantly, the law, under Article 17, provides that: “Single-use plastic items which are already ordered or in stock are exempted from the application of this Law within three (3) months from the commencement of this law.

The existing factories in Rwanda manufacturing single-use plastic items must comply with the provisions of this Law within two (2) years from the date of publication of this Law in the Official Gazette of the Republic of Rwanda.” 

To illustrate, first paragraph of Article 17 provides a time frame of three months for phasing out already ordered plastic materials or those in stock. Second, it provides a time frame of 2 years for existing factories to phase out manufacturing single-use plastic items so as to comply with the provisions of the foregoing law.

Prior to coming into force of the new or revised, the use or sale of polythene bags had been prohibited and it has turned out to be part and parcel the culture.

Rwanda’s policy on prohibition of manufacturing, use, importation or sale of plastic carry bags and single-use plastic items reflects its commitment to the East African Legislative Assembly Bill passed to ban the manufacture, sale, import and use of certain plastic bags across its six member states.

A similar initiative was, in October 2018, approved by the European Union Parliament imposing a ban on a number of single-use plastic items by 2021, along with a requirement to reduce plastic in food packaging by 25 percent by 2025 and cut plastic content in cigarette filters 80 percent by 2030.

Furthermore, Rwanda is equally committed to an international coalition, dubbed as “Legal Limits on Single-Use Plastics and Microplastics: A Global Review of National Laws and Regulations”. It was created at the initiative of France to coordinate action to promote the elimination of single-use of plastic bags and exchange expertise and best practices, such as existing regulation aiming at reducing single-use plastic consumption and marketing restrictions of products leading to marine litter. As of July 2018, eleven countries joined the coalition.

This coalition echoed the United Nations launched campaign, in 2017, dubbed the ‘Clean Seas’, which has garnered the majority of the UN member states to eliminate single-use plastics by 2022.

Many national regulatory frameworks were adopted to control plastic bags, single-use plastics and microplastics pollution. This provides a general picture of the types of regulation currently existing for each stage of the plastic lifespan, from manufacture or production, to use, and finally disposal.

However, plastics manufacturers contend that better recycling is the most effective way to reduce the environmental impact of their products. But many factors make it hard to recycle plastic, from its physical characteristics to insufficient market demand for many types of recycled plastics. In many instances, single-use plastics can only be recycled, optimistically, before their fibers become too short to be reprocessed.

In my view, land-based pollution from single-use plastics demands a global response. One attractive strategy is pursuing a legally binding phase-out of most single-use plastics at the global level. Perhaps this approach makes sense because it would build on current national efforts to eliminate single-use packaging, and would create opportunities for new small and medium-sized businesses to develop more benign substitutes.

It is, however, worth noting that very few countries effectively regulate the entire lifecycle of plastic bags—from manufacturing and production, use and distribution, to trade and disposal. As noted, a good number of countries comprehensively restrict the retail distribution of plastic bags, in tandem with restrictions on manufacturing, production and imports. The rest include loopholes that could fail to curb overall plastic pollution.

Governments need to provide subsidies for reusable bags, as well as to improve the design and implementation of laws around the world.

The writer is a law expert.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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