More will follow Dubai's plan to eliminate plastic bags, says Rwandan environment chief

Faustin Munyazikwiye says education is key in drive to become plastic free

Volunteers recycle plastic bottles found in Rwanda.
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Dubai's move to introduce a charge for plastic bags, and eventually ban them, will drive momentum for other governments to follow suit and protect the environment, a leading Rwandan environment official has said.

In 2008, Rwanda issued a law banning the use of all polythene plastic bags.

In the next few years, it also aims to become completely plastic free, with a few exceptions, such as plastics needed for packaging vaccines and other medical items.

Implementing the law was not easy. We had a huge push back from businesses that were profiting from selling plastic bags
Faustin Munyazikwiye, Rwandan Environmental Management Authority

Since the widespread ban on commercial use of plastic bags, both urban and rural areas in the country have become cleaner.

The move earned Rwanda the reputation of being one of the greenest countries in Africa, and in 2008 the UN Habitat declared the capital Kigali one of the cleanest cities in the region.

Speaking to The National, Faustin Munyazikwiye, deputy director general for the Rwandan Environmental Management Authority (Rema), said there are challenges when implementing such a policy.

Faustin Munyazikwiye, deputy director general for the Rwandan Environmental Management Authority (REMA), at the UN Climate Talks in Morocco.

“Rwanda was among one of the first countries that started the policy of banning plastic bag importation, use and manufacturing,” he said.

“Our journey started in 2004 and the law came into effect four years later.

“Plastics were having such a negative impact on the environment. They were killing aquatic animals, even domestic animals because they would consume these plastics.

“One of the integral reasons we enforced this ban was because of the long-term impact on agriculture and the environment.”

Plastic bags, which take hundreds of years to degrade, are a major global issue blamed for clogging oceans and killing marine life.

In 2017, Kenya also enacted a rule to punish anyone making, selling or importing plastic bags, with as much as four years in jail or a fine of up to $19,000 (Dh70,000).

Mr Munyazikwiye said after carrying out a lot of field research in Rwanda, the authority noted plastic litter was "impacting the penetration of water on soil", which in turn was affecting crop growth for farmers.

There was also a big loss of animal life, such as chickens and cows, which many farmers rely on to make a living.

“Implementing the law was not easy. We had a huge push back from businesses that were profiting from selling plastic bags,” he said.

“Educating the public on the benefits of the move was the mainstay of our awareness campaign.

“Once we shed a spotlight on how plastic bags were impacting the environment and livelihoods, people started to slowly come around to the idea.”

Local businesses encouraged to produce alternatives

Initially, a ministerial instruction was adopted by the Cabinet in 2004 to limit the use and manufacture of plastic bags in Rwanda.

Local businesses were encouraged to produce alternative packaging from biodegradable materials like papers, cotton and banana leaf bags.

Businesses that had plastic bags in their stores were given three years to finish their stocks.

In 2008, a law banning polythene bags was enacted. While the ministerial instruction had no specific provisions for fines and penalties, the new law does, including imprisonment for some cases.

“It has been a long journey and continues to be, but we are working with the business community and private sector to help them find opportunities to create alternative, eco-friendly packaging,” he said.

“It has also created a new business for collecting and recycling plastics.

“There are some exemptions for certain sectors, like healthcare, that can use plastic bags for medical waste, but the commercial use is banned.”

Community volunteers in Rwanda clean plastic bags found in environment before ban was enacted in 2008.

Shortly after the ban was enforced, REMA noticed many passengers entering from nearby countries were bringing in plastic bags with no knowledge of the law.

Since then, it has deployed staff to collect plastic bags from passengers at border points and the airport.

“Some of the biggest impacts on Rwanda’s environment is that our drainage systems are no longer clogged by plastic waste, which leads to less floods in the rainy season,” he said.

“Plastics are no longer scattered on agricultural land resulting in increased water penetration into the soil.

“It has been a tough road, and we have not reached our full vision yet, but one of the biggest challenges was changing peoples’ mindset towards plastic bags."

Earlier this month it was announced Dubai will introduce a charge of 25 fils for single-use plastic bags from July 1.

The emirate's Executive Council said the charge would be applied in retail, clothing, restaurants and pharmacies, as well as on delivery orders and e-commerce orders.

The charge will be evaluated in stages before single-use plastic bags are banned completely in two years' time.

“I think the UAE’s move to charge for, and eventually ban plastic bags, will create great momentum for other countries to follow suit," said Mr Munyazikwiye.

“It's a great move and will push other hesitant countries to act. If the UAE can do it, others can [also do it].”

Countries that have already banned plastic bags: in pictures

Updated: February 17, 2022, 12:17 PM