Fate of all these plastic bottles

I take pride in the fact that every time I am buying goodies at the a duty-free en route to Kigali International Airport, the store attendants always ask if I am flying to Kigali – If and when I am, they pack my items in paper bags as opposed to the plastic bags for any other destination. It is truly amazing: how many countries have ‘plastic bag police’ at the airport?
 Aline Akintore.
Aline Akintore.

I take pride in the fact that every time I am buying goodies at the a duty-free en route to Kigali International Airport, the store attendants always ask if I am flying to Kigali – If and when I am, they pack my items in paper bags as opposed to the plastic bags for any other destination. It is truly amazing: how many countries have ‘plastic bag police’ at the airport?

We recognised an important fact a number of years ago: with waste comes responsibility and that for the sustainability of our environment, the best time to act is now. In the same stroke of enlightenment, many of us now recognise the importance of hydration and being selective about what water we drink. But unlike purified mineral water, plastic bottles are a hazard to us and our environment; we ought to recognise the fact that bottled water is becoming prevalent and we need to consider action on how to manage waste plastic bottles.

Where does all this waste plastic go? Do all these bottles make it to landfills? Are they incinerated? Littered? None of those options is healthy for our environment; the only way to break down plastic is through photo degradation by Ultra Violet rays and this takes a bit of time for the PET bottles used to bottle water.

Let’s break this down into numbers looking just at government institutions alone. I consume about four 500ml bottles of water every day at work. At every meeting, water is served and in every office, water is stocked. There are sixteen ministries and ten government agencies in the Rwandan government (give or take). If we assume that there are one hundred employees at each of these institutions (there are much more of course), if each employee drunk only one bottle of water every day, in five working days 13,000 bottles make it to waste – that is 52,000 bottles per month. That number doesn’t even begin to reflect the reality given that if each employee drunk as much water as I did, 208,000 non-biodegradable bottles go into our landfills every month. That is scary given my small assumptions as is! 

I don’t know whether public waste management companies recycle because there are certainly numerous benefits of recycling: energy conservation, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and recycled plastics make hundreds of other everyday products (We could use all that plastic to make plastic chairs for example), just to mention a few. Greater supply of recycled plastics means more demand for recycled products which results in some levels of sustainability.

Opponents will highlight the fact that recycling isn’t a bed of roses: recycling expends resources like electricity and water so one might argue that more resources are being wasted than saved. I don’t have the answer to that to be quite frank. But there are other options such as re-use of plastic waste and more importantly, reduction of plastic supply – for example water fountains at each institution would dramatically change everything.

Nevertheless, the government could engage the public in a nationwide dialogue on the use, reuse and disposal of plastic bottles, just as was done with plastic bags. In line with that, a specific bin in each office for only plastic bottles would mean that these bottles don’t get mixed with ordinary trash and choke the life out of waste landfills wherever they are. These plastic-specific bins would ensure all the bottles make it to one place and are made good use of. It could even be set up as a government challenge whereby the institution that performs best at plastic waste management is awarded every year. The ‘how’ is not as important as the ‘what’ and ‘when’ right now.

Let’s do something about all this plastic…

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