In 2007 the City of San Francisco banned the plastic bag — so did the entire African Country of Rwanda. At the time of the plastic bag ban Rwanda did not have a domestic manufacturer of a reusable option, but the Rwandan government and people viewed banning plastic bag as so critical to the economics, environment and health of the country that they decided to ban it anyway. The innovations Rwanda have since implemented and the enormous positive impact the plastic bag ban has had on their country is an example the world should be watching.
Here is a bit of the story from Dr. Rose Mukankomeje, Director General of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority.
Who initiated the plastic bag ban in Rwanda?
The Government of Rwanda through the Ministry in charge of environment. A scientific study was conducted on the impact of plastic bags on the Rwandan environment, as well as the plastic bags contribution to the economy of our country. The study showed an overwhelming negative impact of plastic bags on the environment which lead the Government of Rwanda to banning the plastic bag.
How did the plastic bag negatively impact Rwanda’s environment?
Plastic bags that were used in Rwanda were made from non-biodegradable materials. They would end up scattered throughout our agricultural land and were preventing water penetration into the soil thereby leading to low agricultural productivity. Plastic bags were also clogging our drainage systems which would lead to flooding during the rainy season. Additionally, due to the lightweight nature of plastic bags they were being blown and littered throughout Rwanda which hindered our efforts for a clean Rwanda. The plastic bags which were being disposed of were frequently being burned which causes toxic fumes to be released in the air.
What is the “Clean Rwanda” initiative?
It is part of Rwanda’s 2020 Vision and Strategy which states 100% of the Rwandan Population will be in a good hygienic condition by 2017.
Is the ban for all plastic bags or only for a certain type of plastic bag?
Our law prohibits all manufacturing, use, importing and selling of all polyethylene bags in Rwanda.
Did Rwanda ever consider charging a fee for the bags instead of implementing a countrywide ban?
No, the cost of plastic bags is so little and our primary concern was how plastic bags were being disposed of after use. We knew we wanted the countrywide ban because of the havoc the plastic bags were creating on our environment. The problems the plastic bags were causing were both environmental problems and lasting social economic implications to the development of our country.
Who expressed concerns about banning the plastic bag and how were these concerns addressed?
Industries that manufactured plastic bags as well as businesses and people that imported plastic bags for sale and profit gains had concerns. We addressed their concerns by asking the manufacturers of plastic bags in Rwanda to recycle [plastic] instead of manufacturing it. We also provided tax incentives to companies for purchasing equipment that would help recycle plastic or manufacture environmental friendly bags. In cases where the use of polyethylene bags is inevitable, an Order of the Prime Minister establishes is required to approve their usage.
What is an example of where the use of a polyethylene bag is inevitable?
In healthcare polyethylene bags are used during collection and transportation for disposal of bio-medical wastes. Also, agriculture polyethylene bags can be used for construction of green houses.
What were the positive and negative impacts on private businesses to the plastic bag ban?
In the short term, community based associations sprung up comprised of mainly women and youth cooperatives to make bags made from locally available environmental friendly materials. Private businesses, of course, had to re-strategize their business model in order to orient their
businesses to recycling or manufacturing bags. And of course another major positive is that entire the country of Rwanda is clean.
What has been the environmental impact of the plastic bag ban in Rwanda?
Rwanda became an extraordinarily clean country. Tourism is increasing which is very good economically for our country.
How did you educate the Rwandan citizens on the ban and were there any difficulties in this education process?
The constitution of Rwanda states that every citizen has the right to a clean and healthy environment. Part of what we do in Rwanda to ensure our communities stay clean is we have monthly Umuganda, which is monthly community work. During this time people and leaders clean their communities and during talks of the [plastic bag] ban there were discussions [during Umuganda] regarding the advantages of doing away with plastic bags. Part of the communication efforts included testimonies from farmers whose cows had died due to accidentally eating the plastic bags littered in their farms as well as stories from others about how plastic bags had negatively impacted their lives. We also had TV and radio campaigns against plastic bag usage and short videos we distributed to buses and airlines to educate travelers to Rwanda about our plastic bag ban. But there were initial difficulties with this because good alternatives did not exist and we had to import environmentally friendly bags.
What is Umuganda?
Umuganda refers to community work that is mandatory for every Rwandan between 18 and 65 years old, with the ability to work. If a person is above sixty five years of age and is willing to work they are able to participate as well. Expatriates residing in Rwanda are also encouraged to participate in community works. It takes place every last Saturday of every month. During Umuganda, efforts of many people congregate to carry out community work.
What advice do you have for other cities, states, provinces or countries who are considering banning the plastic bag?
Identify incentives to industries to produce alternatives to plastic bags. Create public awareness and social media campaigns. Get the media involved in the effort. Develop laws and regulations to support banning the plastic bag and form strong partnerships with all public sectors.
What challenges do you think Rwanda faced in implementing this ban that perhaps other countries would not?
Rwanda is a developing country that has no industries that produced environmentally friendly bags. Huge investments were required to invest in recycling technologies. Also as Rwanda was the first country in the world to implement a total ban on plastic bags we had very few references to consult for best practices or ideas for implementation.
Is there any reason to think the plastic bag ban was more easily implemented in Rwanda than in
perhaps it could be implemented in other areas of the world?
The Rwandan Leaders were very committed to the plastic bag ban cause. There was also a very concerted effort by all stakeholders in the country.
Now that the ban has been in place for 4 years, do you believe the majority of Rwandans support the plastic bag ban?
The Rwandan people are aware of the negative impacts of plastic bags and support the ban. If they didn’t plastic bags would be being illegally brought into our country. Rwandans also support the setting up of cottage industries that are finding alternatives to plastic bags. These cottage industries have helped reduce poverty and create non-agricultural based jobs for Rwandans.
Kigali is considered the cleanest city in Africa?
In 2008, the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, got the UN Habitat Scroll of Honour Award for many innovations in building a model, modern city symbolized by many things including zero tolerance for plastics, improved garbage collection, streets and pavements were beautified, public transport was upgraded as well as improvements to the sewage system and slum upgrading. In just one decade, Kigali has been transformed into a place where people come from all corners of the world to see and learn how they can replicate the Kigali modernization and urban conservation model at home.
Travelers to Rwanda comment that Kigali is not only one of the cleanest cities in Africa, but also one of the cleanest capital cities in the world.
In your email you indicated that you wanted to tell the ‘real story about Rwanda,’ what did you mean about this?
Rwanda is a country with a vision to protect and [wants to] manage her environment by reversing environmental pollution and degradation. Rwanda’s vision seeks to have a nation which manages the environment and the natural [surroundings].
Love this topic? Have You Seen Bag It, The Movie? A touching and often flat-out-funny film, following Jeb Berrier as he embarks on a global tout to unravel the complexities of our plastic world. Check it out.