Public Shaming and Even Prison for Plastic Bag Use in Rwanda
Smugglers can receive up to six months in jail. The executives of companies that keep or make illegal plastic bags can be imprisoned for up to a year, officials say. Stores have been shut down and fined for wrapping bread in cellophane, their owners required to sign apology letters — all as part of the nation’s environmental cleanup.
Plastic bags, which take hundreds of years to degrade, are a major global issue, blamed for clogging oceans and killing marine life. Last month, Kenya put in place a rule that will punish anyone making, selling or importing plastic bags with as much as four years in jail or a $19,000 fine.
In Rwanda, the authorities say the bags contribute to flooding and prevent crops from growing because rainwater can’t penetrate the soil when it is littered with plastic.
The nation’s zero tolerance policy toward plastic bags appears to be paying off: Streets in the capital, Kigali, and elsewhere across this hilly, densely populated country are virtually spotless. Men and women are regularly seen on the sides of roads sweeping up rubbish, and citizens are required once a month to partake in a giant neighborhood cleaning effort, including the president.
Plastic-bag vigilantes are everywhere, from airports to villages, and these informants tip off the authorities about suspected sales or use of plastic.
One recent afternoon, Mr. Mberabagabo, the border official, surveyed the crossing point with the Democratic Republic of Congo, where thousands of people, goods and animals flowed back and forth, punctuated by shouts, cries and animal grunts.
Plastic tubs filled with onions, eggplants, carrots, plantains and cassava bobbed above the heads of women who marched purposefully, with places to go, money to make and mouths to feed. And somewhere among them, often tucked in the women’s undergarments, Mr. Mberabagabo said, were hundreds of plastic bags.
“The most extreme cases are the ladies,” he said. “It’s not very easy to search them,” he added bashfully.
An immigration official working alongside Mr. Mberabagabo showed footage on his cellphone of a middle-aged woman who had been caught transporting plastic bags wrapped around her arms. In the clip, she sobbed and apologized, shielding her eyes from the camera as if she were a drug dealer exposed in a sting operation on television.
The official, expressing a mix of awe and frustration at the lengths to which smugglers will go, showed another video clip of a wheelchair that had a false bottom concealing bundles of tightly packed plastic bags. He puffed with pride while recounting how he discovered the deceit.
Nearby, a tall plastic bin was filled to the brim with plastic bags, from the large supermarket kind to the small, translucent types used to pack sandwiches. A big banner read: “Use environmentally friendly bags” as officials searched luggage and patted down entrants.
Rwanda is probably Africa’s cleanest nation and among the most pristine in the world. Though at least 15 African countries have enacted some sort of ban, many still have plastic bags littered on roads, stuck in drain pipes or caught in trees. Cattle die eating the bags because they obstruct digestion. In informal settlements in places like Kenya, plastic bags are sometimes used as “flying toilets” containing human waste.
There are, of course, many environmental threats on the continent, including poaching, water pollution and deforestation. Some countries are trying to tackle them, like Gabon, where the president has fashioned himself as an environmentally conscious leader. But many nations lack the resources or political will. Congo bans plastic bags, in theory, but there is little to suggest the ban is enforced.
Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, has so much trash, most of it contained in plastic bags, that the city’s residents have nicknamed the city “poubelle,” or “garbage can.” In Goma, a Congolese city just across the border with Rwanda, plastic litter is everywhere, made even more visible because the earth there is made of black, volcanic rock. Clumps of colored plastic poke out of the ground like weird vegetation.
“Rwanda is very clean; here in Congo it’s very dirty,” said Richard Mumbere, a Congolese cabdriver. “Our government is not organized, and so it damages the environment.”
Back in Rwanda, enforcing the ban, which was first adopted in 2008, involves hundreds of rules that are tricky to follow, to say the least.
Imports generally have their plastic packaging removed at customs, officials say, unless doing so would damage the goods. In that case, stores are required to remove the packaging before handing the merchandise to customers.
Food wrapped in cellophane is allowed only in hotels, and only if it does not leave the premises.
Biodegradable bags are allowed only for frozen meat and fish, not for other items like fruit and vegetables because such bags still take as long as 24 months to decompose, the government says.
Potato chips and other foods packed in plastic are allowed only if the companies making them are approved by the government — after showing a detailed business plan that includes how they plan to collect and recycle their bags.
The results of Rwanda’s efforts are evident in this clean country, but they may not be easy to replicate. In the United States and Europe, for example, there is a dispute between environmentalists and representatives of the plastics industry who say that bags made of alternative materials, like cloth, have a bigger carbon footprint than plastic ones and aren’t as environmentally friendly as people think. Plastic bags should be reused and recycled instead, they argue.
The authorities in Rwanda brush off criticism about the absence of similar debates in their country. The rules here are based on extensive scientific research and public surveys, they say. And their enforcement is more easily accepted in a country with authoritarian tendencies and little room for dissent.