Rwanda Bans Plastic Bags

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On a recent trip to Rwanda, my luggage was searched at the border, and the authorities confiscated some of my belongings. No, I wasn’t trying to smuggle drugs or weapons. The offenders? Three plastic bags I’d use to carry my shampoo and dirty laundry.

You see, non-biodegradable polythene bags are illegal in Rwanda. In 2008, while the rest of the world was barely starting to consider a tax on single-use plastic bags, the small East African nation decided to ban them completely.

At Kigali International Airport, a sign warns visitors that plastic bags will be confiscated. Agents from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) cut the plastic wrapping off negligent travellers’ suitcases. Throughout the country, businesses have been forced to replace plastic carrier bags with paper ones.

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The ban was a bold move. It paid off. As soon as I set foot in Rwanda from neighboring Uganda, it struck me. It’s clean. Looking out the window of the bus that was taking me to Kigali, the capital, I could see none of the mountains of rubbish I’d grown accustomed to in other African countries. No plastic carrier bags floating in the wind or stranded on a tree branch.

Upon arrival in Kigali the contrast is even more evident. With its lovely green squares and wide boulevards, the Rwandan capital is one of the most beautiful cities in Africa. And it’s immaculate. Enough to teach a lesson to scruffy – albeit beloved – Western metropolises like New York or London. And the ban on plastic bags is just the start for Rwanda. It’s all part of the Vision 2020 plan to transform the country into a sustainable middle-income nation.

Eventually, the country is looking to ban other types of plastic and is even hinting at the possibility of becoming the world’s first plastic-free nation. Its constitution recognizes (pdf) that “every citizen is entitled to a healthy and satisfying environment.” It also underlines each citizen’s responsibility to “protect, safeguard and promote the environment”.

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Throughout the world, many initiatives to reduce or ban the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags have been halted because of economic concerns. In England, for example, there is ongoing concern that a 5p levy on single-use carrier bags could harm small businesses.

Still reeling from a horrific genocide which resulted in the deaths of over 800,000 people in 1994, Rwanda could have dismissed the plastic ban as an unnecessary hindrance for its developing economy. It could have opted for a simple levy on plastic carrier bags, as have many other American cities. But the authorities’ main concern was the way in which plastic bags were being disposed of after use. Most were being burned, releasing toxic pollutants into the air, or left to clog drainage systems.

UK-plastic-bag-ban-001Knowing it lacked the basic facilities to sustainably manage plastic waste, Rwanda devised a clever strategy to turn the ban into a boost to its economy. The authorities encouraged companies that used to manufacture plastic bags to start recycling them instead by providing tax incentives. The policy also created a market for environmentally friendly bags, which were virtually non-existent in the country before the ban.

Now in its sixth year, the policy has proved efficient, if not perfect. Rwanda is starting to struggle with a lucrative black market for the shunned plastic bags. The excessive use of paper bags is also starting to raise concerns. But the mere fact that a developing country facing tremendous challenges has managed to enforce such groundbreaking legislation should make us wonder what the western world could achieve if the political will really existed.

Energy Addressing Poverty

It has been a widely accepted phenomena that one of the ingredients to eradicating poverty and extreme poverty is energy access amongst a list of other ingredients. We often hear a lot of articles and talks saying that people lack access to energy, but actually energy availability has never been an issue but the question being tabled in last couple of 2 decades is how as the human race we may improve and efficiently use the energy we have always known since time immemorial. The lack of efficient energy like electricity, solar has a toll on the physical being of people and more so, time wasting. The time and physical effort expended by people in gathering fuel and collecting water seriously limits their ability to engage in educational and income-generating activities. Therefore the poverty cycle will never end and hence energy poverty directly and heavily influences extreme poverty.

Energy Poverty can be defined as the lack of adequate modern energy for the basic needs of cooking, warmth and lighting, and essential energy services for schools, health centres and income generation. Energy poverty is an endemic and crippling problem; nearly 600 million out of 1.1 billion people in Africa live without access to any power, which also means no access to safer and healthier electric cooking and heating, powered health centers and refrigerated medicines, light to study at night, or electricity to run a business. The International Energy Agency defines “modern energy access” as 500 kWh/year per urban household, or about 100kWh per person. And yet as a continent we fall way below that, below is a graphic image by Todd Moss to illustrate the extent of the work which needs to be done:

energy pov 2 fridgea

A look at the World Energy Outlook shows that the main constraint of governments in the developing world is that of availing energy to households. Currently as a country (Zimbabwe), our electricity accessibility stands at 37%. 83% of urban households have access to the grid electricity and 13% for the rural households and as much as we commend the progress being made, we still insist that a lot of work still needs to be done. In comparison with other regions such as Latin America, Middle East, Europe, and North America, Africa has one of the lowest per capita consumption rates. Modern energy consumption in Africa is very low and heavily reliant on traditional biomass.k

The energy demands of the poor living under US$1/day are quite simple and a little effort could go a long way in poverty alleviation. These basic needs include:

Cooking– Affordable access to modern fuels is needed to address cooking, heating, and food processing needs, and to reduce reliance on fuel wood and traditional uses of biomass materials. Other organizations like AFREA have had tremendous in this field and supported initiatives like cook stoves, sustainable charcoal production etc for those that do not have the financial muscle to be buying specialized equipment.

Lighting– this initiative alone ensures that the productive time of both men and women extends beyond sunlight hours. In areas without electrical power, adequate lighting is a critical need. Since illumination does not require a great deal of electrical power, better lighting can be provided through low-cost lighting options using battery power, small stand-alone home systems, or decentralized village power systems.

Water Supply– women are often responsible for managing water for domestic consumption. Where there are no water pumps like in the case with most rural areas and now in urban areas, it is generally women who are tasked with hauling water for household needs. Besides creating additional burdens on women’s time and strength, water scarcity limits agricultural productivity, decreases family sanitation, and reduces women’s ability to prepare cooked food.

Information and Technology– Access to electricity/power allows people to have radios, televisions, cellphones and other electronic equipment used for information and communications.

That simple!!