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The Ban on Single-use Plastic Bags in Rwanda: Can Preventing Pollution Do More Harm Than Good?

Rwanda is one of the smallest eastern countries of the African continent and home to about 12 million people. Rwanda is known as the land with “thousand hills,” beautiful savannas, abundant wildlife, and fascinating valleys. Because of the plethora of resources Rwanda hosts, it was victim to mass genocide in the 1990s, which is is still facing the impact of, emotionally and economically as well as facing the enormous consequences of the horrendous genocide. The ethnic Hutu extremists slaughtered 800,000 people of the minority Tutsi community. Even as a minority, the Tutsi monarchy used to dominate the majority of Rwandans that identified with the Hutu community. The Hutus created a “campaign of slaughter” where neighbors killed neighbors and husbands killed wives that were Tutsis (1). Rwandan citizens and the organizational structure of the country are still recovering to this day. As the country attempts to move on from this past, new challenges arise.

“Not a plastic bag in sight on the street in Kigali.” Image: Flickr: IFPRI -IMAGES

The New Law in Rwanda

In 2008, Rwanda’s government established a new law, banning the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags everywhere in the nation (2). This new reform was part of Rwanda’s revival plan that strove to focus on environmental conservation and preservation. According to the article: “How Rwanda Became the World’s Unlikely Leader in Plastic Bag Bans,” this national ban on plastic bags has been the first successful attempt “in the world”, coming from a country that is still fighting to recuperate its morale. In the U.S., California has tried to implement laws for the prohibition of plastic bag use and San Francisco is one of the only cities that has seriously abided by this law. Rwanda’s dedication to establishing and following a ban on single use plastic bag has influenced many other cities and countries to follow suit, although there may be more than meets than eye as violators experience strict repercussions in Rwanda.

The strict enforcement of this law prohibits all manufacturing, use, and importation of plastic bags. Manufacturers were required to convert their whole structure of production. Business companies will face up to a year in prison if they violate this law, and individual violators are demanded to pay “stiff” fines and they often experience “public shaming” (3). Travelers are also required to obey by Rwanda’s law terms.

The Dark Side of the New Law

However, there is a “dark” side in the ban of plastic bags in Rwanda. There are many stories of people smuggling plastic bags from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the neighboring countries such as Tanzania, Burundi, and Uganda, with the intention of selling them inside Rwanda. Cases have been uncovered in which the violators taped plastic bags to their bodies and covered up themselves in concealing attire. Umutoni Magambo is a 28 years old woman who was caught selling these banned products, making a large amount of money that soon surpassed a week’s average wage of a Rwandan. But why are a lot of the citizens enraged with such reform? It seems like Rwandans prefer the convenience of plastic bags that do not dissolve easily in the very hot climate of the country. This means that buyers prefer to go elsewhere and the Rwandan taxes are very high for small businesses to make that “legal” sacrifice (4). 

The impact of Plastic Pollution

Despite these social challenges, plastic bags are detrimental for the health and life of our environment. Plastic is not biodegradable, which means that is extremely hard to get rid of, once produced. It takes about 400 years for a small grocery plastic bag to biodegrade (5). The impact of plastic pollution is generally immense and has created the Pacific “plastic soup” hole, where an abundance of plastic is floating on the surface of our largest ocean. Thus, marine ocean wildlife is at stake as many animals confuse plastic bags for food.  According to the article:  How Do Plastic Bags Affect Our Environment, 52 percent of the world’s sea turtles have eaten plastic debris” (6). Plastic also causes technical damage as it clogs are sewage systems, creating further health and littering problems.

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi for The New York Times, “A Rwandan woman hiding packets of plastic bags in her clothing as she prepared to smuggle them across the border from Goma, Congo, into Rwanda.”

In conclusion, Rwanda’s ban on plastic bags creates a great example across the international community, but its implementation weighs heavily on the economics of its society. What can the Rwandan government do to decrease the dissatisfaction and provide citizens with alternatives that can work in the hot environment of the country? Will the United States ever be able to establish and implement such laws on a national scale? Would the environmental benefits out weigh the economic challenges? The questions remain to be seen. 

Learn more about our impact in Rwanda by visiting the Rwanda Branch page at www.ideasforus.org/branches/rwanda

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Work Cited: 

  1. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-26875506 
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/28/world/africa/rwanda-plastic-bags-banned.html 
  3. https://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-rwanda-plastic-bag-ban.htm 
  4. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2016/2/25/rwanda-plastic-bag-ban.html 
  5. https://sciencing.com/why-are-plastic-bags-so-bad-for-the-environment-5005999.html 
  6. https://greenerideal.com/news/environment/0613-how-do-plastic-bags-affect-our-environment/