A month ago, as Uganda joined the rest of the world to celebrate World Environment Day in Mbale, President Yoweri Museveni, ordered for a ban on polythene bags [ locally known as Kaveera] in accordance with section 2 of the 2009 Finance Act.The Act which stipulates a total ban on the “importation, local manufacture, sale or use” of polythene carrier bags in the country, has for the last 8 years almost had no legal force as the importation, local manufacture, sale and use of polythene carrier bags in the country has continued unabated.
A checkered past in implementing bans on Polythene [Kaveera]
Through the years, Uganda has had a checkered history in implementing laws proscribing the production and usuage of polythene bags.
In 2007, Ezra Suruma, the then Finance Minister proclaimed during the Budget speech that the government had banned the trade, production, importation and use of plastic materials.
Not much leeway was however made in enforcing and implementing the ban.The government ban followed similar proscriptions in Zanzibar, Kenya and Tanzania and came against a backdrop of increased smuggling of polythene bags into the country.
In the legislation, the government banned the usuage of polythene bags of not more than 30 microns.
To boot, it also imposed a punitive excise duty of 120% on polythene bags and other plastic materials above 30 microns.4 years earlier in 2002, the government had imposed excise duty of 50% on the local production of polythene and plastic containers as an action to encourage producers to develop more environment friendly alternatives and for consumers to cut down on the usuage of the plastic materials.
Needless to say, the excise duty imposition did not stop the problem as had been earlier envisaged.In 2002 as well, the High Court ruled that rampant and uncontrolled use of polythene bags posed a danger to the environment and violated the rights of Uganda to a clean and healthy environment.In 2015, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) declared a ban on polythene bags of less than 30 microns.
The ban, which was to be implemented in coordination with the Kampala Capital City Authority; was in line with the Finance Act 2009 and the Finance (permitted plastic bags and other plastics for exceptional use) Regulations, 2010.
To ensure the effectiveness of the ban, a stepwise approach that involved a ban on the issuance and distribution of polythene plastic carrier bags by Supermarkets was instituted.According to Bob Nuwagira, NEMA’s senior information, Education and Communication Officer, NEMA registered a 70% success in recalling outlawed polythene from supermarkets and shops.The implementation of the law was preceded by a public notice communication about the enforcement exercise.At a press conference held on the 20th of May 2015, Dr Tom Okurut, the Executive Director of NEMA disclosed that in the aftermath of the ban, NEMA had harvested 7 tonnes f Kaveera, through seizure and willful handover by supermarkets.Though there were some successes, the status quo, generally remained the same.Why the bans have hit a snag
“The problem has been with enforcement. The hope is that the President’s directive can be heeded. The law has to be enforced in earnest, if the problem of single use plastics is going to be dealt with. NEMA owes it to the country to bring to task those who violate the ban,” Environment scientist Sam Owach opines.“The ban on plastics has often hit a dead end on account of increasing urbanization, which has drawn forth increased consumption of plastic materials. Minimal thickness (30 microns) rules and economic tools (taxes and levies) have all not worked because of weak enforcement,” Phiona Muraza, an environmental engineer, says.“The failure to properly market and promote eco-friendly alternatives such as paper and canvas bags by the authorities has also exacerbated the problem.”The 2015 ban had supermarkets stocking up on eco friendly carrier bags, but their issuance and usuage was short lived.
Within a year, as a testament to failed enforcement, most supermarkets were back to issuing plastic polythene bags to their clients.Enforcing the ban on only specific sizes of polythene was always going to be a tall order.“The fact that the ban excluded polythene bags of over 30 microns, yet they are equally hazardous and have same environmentally degrading properties did not make sense,” Owach says.Scholars Johnny Mugisha and Gracious Diiro of Makerere University’s Department of Agribusiness and Natural Resource Economics noted in their 2015 report entitled “Households responsiveness to Government Ban on Polythene carrier bags in Uganda” that the exclusion of polythene bags of over 30 microns ban was a partial instrument that would be difficult to apply.Whilst strides were made in policing the manufacture of polythene bags; it was much more difficult controlling and monitoring usuage by consumers.“Few people were able to differentiate between banned and unbanned Kaveera and there was little effort in educating people on the difference. As such, there was confusion. If the ban had been on polythene bags of all sizes as was the case with Rwanda, there would have been headway,” Muraza says.Experts also note that had there been an awareness campaign, for example, casting light on the dangers of the harmful industrial chemical-BPA or bisphenol found in polythene bags, there could have been a turn in the tide.Tasked, last year, by the Parliamentary Natural Resources Committee to explain his organisation’s failure to effectively implement the law, NEMA’s Executive Director-Dr Tom Okurut, without giving details, blamed the failure on crowding in the implementation of the law.
Okurut said different stakeholders involved triggered confusion and frustrated efforts to enforce the ban.The resistance of polythene bag manufacturers also made it hard to execute the ban.
Whilst meeting NEMA officials a year ago to deliberate on the country’s environmental woes, Silas Aogon-Member of Parliament for Kumi Municipality hinted that some investors had made it a habit to run to the President whenever the ban seemed to bear down on them.
NEMA'S view on why bans have failed
Dr Daniel Babikwa, NEMA’s Director of District Support, Coordination and Public Education says the ban has hit a snag on account of people’s reluctance to observe the law proscribing Kaveera.
“Ugandans keep buying single use plastics even when they are warned about their dangers and even they are encouraged to use eco friendly alternatives. The culture here is never to observe laws and that has presented as a real challenge,” Babikwa says.
“Single use plastics have also been hard to ban because of their pervaded use across the country. Their cheap pricing is attractive to people at rank and file level in both rural and urban areas. The manufactures, needless to add, are encouraged to produce more, whilst those who market eco-friendly alternatives have faced long odds as people dread the added costs that come with using them.”
For good measure, the strong Kaveera manufacturing and trading lobby has also played havoc and frustrated the law proscribing the use of polythene bags.
“There is a law in place, but there are strong interests on the manufacturing side, bent on growing their businesses at whatever cost. With support from some circles in government, it has been a tall order making the law bear down on them,” Babikwa says.
Nuwagira echoes Babikwa’s sentiments.
“One of the reasons, NEMA has been facing challenges in enforcing the ban is the fact that plastic manufacturers have continued to protest what they supposedly say is the stringent nature of the law.
To that end, they have protested and made appeals to the government; contending that the ban interferes with their businesses. It is the reason, there was recall in the enforcement ban that was registering success in 2015,” Nuwagira explains.
“The manufactures give conflicting figures on their recycling rates to build their mileage with government.”
Environmental experts say environmental law enforcing agencies, specifically NEMA will have to get tough if progress is to be made.“There have to be legal consequences for those who violate the ban. By refusing to comply, they not only endanger the environment, but also the lives of other Ugandans,” Environmental management specialist, Duncan Mugisha says.“If NEMA gets tough and strict in its implementation of the Finance Act, there will be headway. Industrialists that manufacture polythene should be taken to task and pay heavy fines if they violate the ban,” Environmental scientist -Edmond Wangota says.Wangota adds that supermarkets and retail outlets that supply polythene carrier bags in violation of the ban ought to be litigated.Babikwa says NEMA can carry out enforcements but one of the proper approaches in the wake of the Presidents directive will have to be education.“People will have to be brought to terms with the fact that the item they are so partial to is dangerous.”NEMA has embarked on a Public education drive on the dangers of Kaveera. One of the components involves prevailing upon manufacturers to heed the ban as a means of contributing to sustainable environment management in the country,” Nuwagira adds.“The usuage of Polycarbonate plastics should be banned outrightly. Polycarbonate plastics such as water bottles, baby bottles, plastic tableware such as plates and cups and containers for storing and reheating foods contain a harmful industrial chemical known as BPA or bisphenol.
Ugandan should be encouraged to use biodegradable or eco-friendly alternatives such as lax paper bags and canvas or cloth bags,” Muraza opines.Several experts contend that a change in mindset would stand in a good stead.“In general, there is need to change the mindsets of Ugandans regarding the usuage of Kaveera. There is a lot of apathy even when there are messages warning people of dangers associated with a product. There is a need to raise awareness on the dangers of polythene products amongst Ugandans of all persuasions,” Mugisha says
Global perspectiveAt present, 200 plus cities around the world have banned plastics. The European Union proposed the banning of single use plastics to help protect aquatic life, close to a month ago.
Rwanda launched a nationwide awareness campaign on the dangers of plastic pollution a month ago.