THERE is an international movement toward plastic bags ban since their negative effects on the environment has been proved in numerous studies worldwide. Rwanda is one of the countries that have already banned plastic bags, ‘walking the talk’ on its environmental protection and sustainable development push.
The government banned the use of plastic bags in 2008 under law N°57/2008 of 10/09/2008 that prohibited the manufacture, importation, use and sale of polythene bags in Rwanda. Regional governments, through the East African Community (EAC) legislative assembly, are also pushing for total ban on use of polythene bags.
Kenya recently announced a ban on use of plastic packaging materials, which has already been opposed by the manufacturing sector which argue that it will to increase in cost of operations and loss of jobs. Other regional countries have in the past announced bans on non-biodegradable plastic use with varying degrees of success. However, there are two different approaches to address the challenge of plastic bags around the world: reducing and discouraging use of plastic bags. Rwanda has already reached this objective by banning use of plastic bags. The second approach is at post-consumer stage, using initiatives to improve plastic bag collection and recycling.
Lessons from elsewhere teach us that there is no country that has implemented a global ban on plastic bags. In most of the cases, a tax has been imposed on shopping plastic bags in countries like Ireland, Germany, South Africa, Taiwan, Kenya, and the money raised from this levy is generally dedicated to environmental projects. It is usually considered as a first step before the total ban.
Some countries, like in Australia, in UK, France or in New Zealand are encouraging the consumers to reduce their plastic bags usage by rewarding those reusing recyclable bags; while some cities or countries like in California or in Guatemala, have set up plastic recycling schemes.
Limited choices for packaging
Local industries are facing a big challenge of finding low-cost solutions for packaging. Paper packaging is about four times more costly than plastic, and also exposes products to damage by water or other external agents.
In addition, the high cost involved means products manufactured locally are not competitive in the EAC region. This is one of the reasons industrialists are still pushing for ‘special’ permission to use polythene as packaging material.
According to a Techno-Commercial report on plastics, out of about 170 million tonnes of plastic consumed in the World, 60 million tonnes is used by the packaging sector.
Therefore, outlawing use of plastic could, ultimately, hamper the growth of industries globally and have adverse implications on the life of ordinary people.
Plastics, due to their higher cost-efficiency, benefit ordinary citizens in sourcing their daily necessities and cost far less compared to paper, glass or cloth packaging. Besides, using alternative materials would increase cost of packaging substantially for commodities such as milk, edible oil, cereals, spices, bread and other confectionery items.
Policy intervention needed
To minimise the risk and loss of many businesses, a “package buy back policy” can be considered. If permitted to use the plastic packaging, all the local industries involved would first of all adopt a package buy back policy.
Local industries would now start a buyback scheme for the plastic bags. A notice would be printed on the package informing customers to take back the packages after using the product and, in return, the users would get a token of appreciation, say cash. According to some studies, such a scheme would see at least 80 per cent of the used plastic packages returned to the company and for recycling.
The writer is a private sector development expert and a PhD candidate