Finally, after waiting for over eight years, President Museveni has ordered that Section 2 of the 2009 Finance Act that prohibits the importation, local manufacture, sale or use of plastic bags or bags of polymers of ethene and polyethene should be effected.
The lag was caused by intensive lobbying by plastic bags manufacturers and lack of Government commitment to save the environment from plastic pollution.
While this is good news, conservationists have noted that the Government still has a lot to do if it intends to make good on its directive because enforcement of regulations in Uganda has often been poor, and single-use plastic bags may continue to be widely used and mismanaged despite prohibitions and levies.
But, what is the big deal about Plastic bags or kaveera? The statistics about plastic pollution are as disturbing as its devastating impacts. It is estimated that polythene bags take 20 to 1,000 years to decompose. They are made from non-renewable resources and contribute to climate change. The material used in their production cannot biodegrade, they remain in the environment for thousands of years clogging landfills, polluting rivers and , causing harm to our natural places, our wildlife and our own health.
To put this in perspective ,United Nations Environmental Programme Secretariat, estimates that plastic packaging accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste globally and goes on to warn that if present trends continue, by 2050, our oceans will have more plastic than fish.
If Uganda implements the single-use plastic bags ban, there will be a great reduction in the effects associated with their use and improper disposal and it could be a step towards more comprehensive policies aiming at reducing the generation of plastic waste and at replacing single-use plastics with more sustainable, eco-friendly alternatives.
However, let us not forget the challenge that lies ahead. It is important that we engage in as much public consultation as possible to ensure a smooth transition through the ban to implementation.
Like many environmental issues, what is missing is the long-term vision where all stakeholders work towards joint solutions to reduce the heavy burden of not only single-use plastic bags, but entire plastic pollution. For example, besides the people’s negligence, the large presence of single-use plastics in the environment is indicative of poor or failing waste management systems. The solution lies in tackling the roots of the problem, the Government need to embark on an effective waste management system and to educate and create awareness among local communities.
At this stage, the Government has the opportunity to assess the best process to follow and estimate the time and resources needed, namely the institutional capacity and the existing economic conditions to ensure that the steps being considered are realistic and have high chances of being successfully implemented.
It is, therefore, advisable that before the policy enters into force, the Government should assess availability of affordable and valid alternatives to plastic bags.
The process for enforcement should also be made clear to the users that will be impacted by it and carry-out stakeholder engagement for acceptance through calls for early participation, policy debate and national-wide awareness campaigns.
To sustainably enforce and monitor the ban, authorities have to clearly explain the decision and any punitive measures that will follow, roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders should be clearly defined at all levels of governance.
Lastly, while this sort of environmental issue needs to be government lead, it is not until the public starts to care, that something will get done. It would be encouraging to see synergised efforts by all of society, whether the public, industries, NGOs or the Government to reduce plastic bags and push for a gradual behaviour change and total ban of kaveera. At family and personal level, there are things each one of us can begin doing to save the environment.
Drainage channels are still clogged with plastics because too many people still don’t find it embarrassing throw garbage out of cars and on the streets.
We cannot continue to blame the Government and the inconvenience or forgetfulness for over-reliance on plastic bags.
We can encourage people to make small lifestyle changes that can have a significant impact on the environment. It is the daily plastics that we buy or pick from shops, supermarkets and restaurants that have become silent serial killers.
Plastic manufacturers and beneficiaries should know that there are better eco-friendly alternatives available namely reusable bags which present an opportunity to create sustainable products and the jobs that go with them.
Kigali-Rwanda, a pioneer in banning single-use plastic bags, was nominated by UN Habitat in 2008 as the cleanest city in Africa is now is seen as one of the cleanest nations on earth. Kenya followed suit in 2017, under the new law, where offenders can face fines of up to $38,000 or four-year jail terms, making their plastic bag ban the most severe in the world and it is helping to clear its iconic national parks and boost tourism.
Rwanda’s monthly local council clean-ups can be a powerful tool to adopt and achieve positive environmental impacts and community awareness and engagement.
Now is the time for big action at a global and local scale. Together, we can do it.