Rwanda: How plastic became the new contraband

By Ivan Mugisha

Posted on Friday, 11 November 2022 12:31
People carrying groceries in plastic bags. REUTERS/Stringer

A carefully planned operation by the Rwandan police in early September, through the use of informants, intercepted a man who was found carrying up to 84 cartons of plastic bags that he had smuggled into the country from neighbouring Uganda.

The man was instantly arrested and handed over to the prosecution team. The plastic bags were handed over to the environment authority for proper dispossession.

He is one of the hundreds of plastic smugglers to be arrested every year in Rwanda.

In a country where polythene bags are considered contraband, such arrests are routine, as Rwanda continues to impose one of the world’s strictest laws against the importation, use and manufacture of polythene bags.

Offenders of this law, which was adopted in 2008, face imprisonment of up to a year and a fine of up to R₣500,000 (around $500). In case of re-offenders, the penalty is doubled.

Arrests abound

This year alone, some five big operations were successful – and they are almost exclusively along Rwanda’s borders.

About 10 people were arrested between July and September this year for smuggling up to 500 large cartons of plastic bags into the country.

In July 2022, a married couple was intercepted with plastic bags tied around their bodies and concealed with clothing on top.

Benon Munyaneza and Godelieve Izabayo were arrested in the middle of the night at Burera District with over 70,000 smuggled pieces of plastic bags.

Police responded to a tip-off by an informant and the suspects were [caught] red-handed

Bonaventure Karekezi, the police spokesperson for the Western Province, said: “They were going to distribute the plastic bags to retail clients in the trading centre. Police responded to a tip-off by an informant and the suspects were [caught] red-handed with 250 cartons of non-biodegradable plastic bags.”

He told journalists that smugglers are always targeting to sell plastic bags to markets and business centres. Hundreds of smugglers apprehended every year are paraded in public and then fined.

Perks of Rwanda’s ban

Talking to The Africa Report, Patrick Muhoza, the head of International Obligations at Rwanda Environment Management Authority, said that the strict ban on polythene has enabled Rwanda to have a clean and environmentally friendly feel.

Indeed, Kigali is often cited as one of the cleanest cities in Africa.

“There are tough penalties, including imprisonment for smuggling and using banned plastics. Industries that are guilty of manufacturing them are fined heavily. Most countries have such laws in place, but the difference with us is that we also have the political will to implement it,” Muhoza says.

Traditional baskets made from banana fibre were a substitute, but paper bags made from old papers and books quickly took over.

Evolution of the ban

The strict ban on plastic bags started 18 years ago: it was made even stricter in 2019 with another law prohibiting the manufacturing, importation, use and sale of  single-use plastic, such as straws, cups and bottles and packagings.

Industries on the wrong side of this law would suffer heavy fines up to R₣10,000,000 (about $10,000) while smugglers would be jailed for a year.

Even though this has discouraged smuggling and the use of illegal plastic substances, it has not ended it completely due to a high demand of plastics on the market. Large quantities of plastics still make it to the market, with retailers using them stealthily. At least 46,954 packets of plastic carry bags and single use plastics have been seized by the police since 2021 alone.

Retailers say substitutes for banned plastic items exist, but they are not enough. The government issues “exceptional” permission for companies making snacks, for instance, and other items packed in plastic, without an alternative packaging material on the local or international market. Their business plan, however, must include how they intend to collect and recycle them.

“There are industries that have no option but to use plastics in the production of their goods. We know that, so for them it is impossible to implement the ban on plastics. Nevertheless, they are charged around $50/kg of plastic produced, and the money is used to clean up the environment where their products ended up being dumped,” Muhoza says.

Biodegradable plastic carry bags have also been introduced specifically as alternatives to carry frozen meat and fish from supermarkets and butcheries.

Adapting to no plastic

Yves Niyongabo,the  owner of Kigali Craft Café that serves about 200 people coffee and juice per day, tells The Africa Report about how substitutes for plastic bags and single-use plastics are taking shape in the restaurant business.

“Several industries are now producing substitutes for single use plastics that we need. However, paper products are slightly more expensive, and the current inflation has made it worse for us. For example, a paper cup that used to cost  R₣80 now can reach  R₣230.

“Whereas single-use plastics were readily available before the ban, we now sometimes have to travel long distances to get these alternative cups,” Niyongabo says.

Beverage companies have also introduced glass bottles for bottled drinking water to replace plastic bottles, although at a slower pace due to increased costs of production.

The mountainous nature of the country, which leads to it being called ‘the land of a thousand hills’, makes it prone to soil erosion and degradation that are accelerated by plastic waste.

Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) also reported that plastic waste has contributed to flooding, due to clogging water drainage systems; and agricultural failure because they limit water penetration into the soil.

About 70% of Rwanda’s population depend on agriculture, which is mainly subsistence in nature. This makes plastic waste a threat to its food security.

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