Rwanda’s war on plastics could form global action plan

Plastic bags have become almost inexistent in Rwanda. This is the positive impact of a law, enacted in 2006, banning selling and use of plastic bags in the country.
Plastic bags in markets before the ban. Sunday Times/John Mbanda
Plastic bags in markets before the ban. Sunday Times/John Mbanda

Plastic bags have become almost inexistent in Rwanda. This is the positive impact of a law, enacted in 2006, banning selling and use of plastic bags in the country.

By banning plastic bags, Rwanda is now recognised as one of the few countries world-wide that reacted to the pressing environmental issue; waste pollution. 

Indeed, plastic waste management remains a big environment challenge to most of Europe and other industrialised countries.

There are about 250 billion plastic particles with a total weight of 500 tons floating on the Mediterranean Sea, according to statistics from the European Commission (EC).

To fight this plastic scourge, the EC proposed new programs that challenge European governments and consumers to stop sending plastic waste to the sea. 

Due to these developments in the EU, the director of Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA), Rose Mukankomeje, was interviewed by a popular German news television, ARD on how Rwanda managed to pull it off.

In the interview, Mukankomeje explained that much as the bill worked in Rwanda, it had not “been easy to put the bill through because plastic is used in the whole world.”

She added that after implementing the ban on plastic bags, Rwanda still has to deal with imports by tourists and those smuggled in from neighbouring countries such as Uganda.

In the same spirit, Janze Potocnik, the EU Commissioner for Environment, wants the 28 EU-member states to sign a bill on anti-plastic bag policy. 

This literally means that the current EU law expresses preference to economic competitiveness instead of environment protection.

In an interview, Potocnik declared his will to abolish this law in order to lead the EU states to a ban or higher taxation on plastic bags.

“The future of industry in Europe and world-wide depends on achieving sustainable resource use. As we don’t have another planet, we have no other choice but to use the resources of planet Earth more efficiently. To recycle, to substitute, to reduce and to make resources go further,” Potocnik said.

The new bill that he proposes consists of several propositions for realizing an anti- plastic bag policy out of which the individual states have to choose from to deal with the problem of plastic bags.

Potocnik is targeting to reduce the number of plastic bags used by an individual European in one year from 200 to 40.

“So I believe that as we move away from a throw-away society, and towards a more circular economy, plastic has a future. It can be part of the solution, not just part of the problem.”

Potocnik’s proposition provoked intense discussions amongst several European states, from which countries like Germany seized the chance to demonstrate how Rwanda can be a blueprint for an ambitious EU campaign for environment conservation. 

Rwandan citizens have seen great advantages the use of alternatives to plastic bags, such as paper bags in markets, according to several residents who were interviewed.

Aline Mahirwe, a resident of Kigali, recalled how streets and public places were polluted by a lot of thin plastic bags before they were banned in 2006. Now Kigali has been declared one of the cleanest capitals of Africa with no trace of plastic bag waste.

“Rwandans understand the value of maintaining a good environment. It is always fresh to live in a clean city like Kigali,” Mahirwe said.

Some shop owners added that they didn’t find it hard to change from plastic to paper bags once the plastic ban law was passed. 

“I am glad about the law because now customers bring their own bags or reuse the old ones. That’s cheaper than always giving plastic bags away,” said Julian Nzabahimana, a shop owner in Kacyiru.

Potocnik’s proposition is the second effort since 2011 to try to lead the EU states to an anti- plastic bag policy. 

After investigations through the European Ministry of Environment, it needs the affirmation of all EU’s 28 member-states for the bill to be passed into law.

EU countries currently pursuing an anti- plastic bag policy are France (ban of not compostable plastic bags since 2010), Ireland (high taxes on plastic bags leading to a reduction of 90 percent since 04/03/2002) and Italy (ban since 01/01/2011)

Therefore, Mukankomeje’s remark to German media portrays Rwanda as an important case study in public discussion of the bill in Europe and provides a clear message that - environment concerns must go hand in hand with economic development.

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