For quite some time, Rwanda has etched its name in the global environmental records for successfully managing to abolish the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags that are a threat to the ecosystem.
Now it appears this record is under attack.
Whether it is individuals or organised smuggling rackets, it seems that the deadly polythene bag is determined to return to Rwanda, beating rigorous border and airport checks as well as enacting stringent legislation to find its way back in the local market.
The government however maintains the proliferation of the bags will not dent its resolve to maintain the ban, even as some private sector players pleaded to be given special leave to use them.
Research by Rwanda Today shows that the banned nylon packaging bags are somehow managing to find their way back — mainly within local market vendors, supermarkets and the elusive street hawkers.
They are mainly used to package and wrap groceries such as fruits, vegetables and confectionaries.
In 2008, Rwanda passed a law that banned the importation and use of polythene bags while possession or smuggling them into the country attracted heavy penalties.
Efforts to determine the source of the bags proved difficult as each vendor claims that they bought them from other traders in Nyabugogo. But most of the traders were non-committal on how the bags enter the country.
Attempts to extract information from the traders found in possession of the bags leads to panic and silence, for fear being apprehended.
Clementine Iribagiza, a fruit and legume trader at Kisementi, one of Kigali’s upmarket shopping centres, told Rwanda Today that the plastic bags are available in Nyabugogo, sometimes sold openly in shops.
“I buy them from Nyabugogo at a place commonly known as ‘Kwa Mutangana’. You can find them in shops around there. I buy them when I go to buy merchandise in wholesale, then I package them to sell to retailers,” the mother-of-two told Rwanda Today.
Ms Iribagiza, who sells her merchandise outside big supermarkets at Kisementi, knows that the plastic bags are illegal but she argues that it is not her fault to use them because she is not the one who imports them into the country.
“I have no choice. I need to look for money to feed my children and I also need to package my goods well for clients to buy,” said Ms Iribagiza, who targets high-end shoppers, usually in their vehicles, including top government officials.
“For example, oranges, tangerines, fresh peas and beans need to be packaged in clean, see-through plastic bags to attract buyers,” she added. “No one wants to buy goods that they cannot see, and the fact that most of them are in moving vehicles makes it easy for us to sell.”
Her sentiments were echoed by many of her colleagues.
The vendors, mainly women, argue that they sometimes do their trade when it is raining and therefore the paper envelopes do not meet their needs.
To avoid arrest, they keep their stock in a secret place where they only return to replenish stocks. This continues until late in the night until after the last customer is gone, usually around 10pm.
“We keep our goods away to avoid arrest and losing everything at once. After selling we pick more and come back here. But we also have supermarket owners who think we take their customers and report us to police,” said another woman, who was in charge of the packaging room and only identified herself as Beatrice.
The women argue that it is not only them who use the polythene bags.
Damascene Gakwaya, a trader in Nyabugogo Market, told Rwanda Today that the non-degradable polythene bags mainly come from Uganda.
Private cars not thoroughly checked
“Personally, I don’t sell them, but what I know is that they come from Uganda — either through smuggling or even through the (official) border (posts). Authorities sometimes don’t properly check vehicles entering,” Mr Gakwaya observed.
The trader claimed that business people connive with bus conductors, who hide the bags in cartons and stuff them in passengers’ luggage while others sneak them in through their friends’ private cars.
“Private cars are not thoroughly checked; so people use this opportunity to sneak them (plastic bags) across the border. When they get here, they sell like hot cake, but me, I continue packaging in the legal paperbags because I know how dangerous plastic bags are,” Mr Gakwaya added.
Majority of the traders know how deadly the polythene bags are but continue trading in them because they are lucrative. The polythene bags come in handy, especially for traders dealing in perishable goods and hawkers, who move from one place to another.
A trader who preferred anonymity told Rwanda Today that the environmentally-unfriendly bags have returned because it is a costly process to import the allowed bio-degradable one. Further, the process to get the certificate to import the biodegradable ones is rigorous.
Allegations of cartel
The trader further revealed that there is a cartel that imports the banned bags, adding that the group is so intricate that it could even involve government officials.
Apart from high-end and middle-class shopping areas, heavy use of polythene bags is visible is slum areas such as Nyakabanda in Remera, Kimisagara, Nyamirambo, Gastata, Kimicanga and other low-cost settlements.
A visit to the new Nduba Dump Site shows how worrying the emergence of the non-biodegradable plastic bags is, with piles of them sorted out by the workers at the site waiting to be burnt.
One of the staff at the new landfill lamented that it was difficult to sort the polythene bags from the rest of the garbage. They cannot be dumped along with the other garbage since they take long to decompose.
Government admits to bags presence
To make matters worse, recyclers, even those dealing in plastics, do not buy the bags as they do plastic containers because they are of low value and poor quality, living the landfill staff with the unenviable task of disposing them.
Dr Rose Mukankomeje, the director-general of Rwanda Environment Management Authority (Rema), admits that there are, indeed, polythene bags on the market. She nonetheless clarified that the government has not opened up their entry but they are smuggled in.
“The plastic bags seen in some places do not mean their reintroduction but the presence of smugglers,” she said in an exclusive interview.
“However, there is no cause for alarm since most Rwandans abide by the law and do not use polythene bags."
Some offenders arrested
“Rema is aware of this and it enforces the law by carrying out inspections and punishing offenders. Environment management is everybody’s business. Article 49 of the Constitution is clear about this, and even Article 3 of the organic law on environment.
“Everybody living in Rwanda has the right to live in a safe and clean environment but also has the responsibility to protect it.”
As is the case with all prohibited goods, Dr Mukankomeje says, some people are arrested by the anti-smuggling institutions and the Rwanda National Police as they attempt to smuggle plastic bags into the country. Some however manage to escape and sell their smuggled polythene bags, the ones seen in some places.
As some traders argued, Rema says that differentiating between biodegradable and non-biodegradable plastic bags is not easy, which could be one of the reasons people resort to smuggling.
“The differentiation between bio-degradable and non-biodegradable plastic bags is a long process which needs specialised laboratories and specific standards,” Dr Mukankomeje said.
She said that Rema does not have such a laboratory but in case there is a need to certify a biodegradable plastic the environmental protection agency calls for the assistance from the Rwanda Bureau of Standards (RBS), which has such expertise and the mandate.
Sensitise Rwandans on dangers
The agency has put in place measures to ensure that polythene bags are not smuggled into the country, she said, among them continuous sensitisation of Rwandans on the dangerous effects of the bags.
“Rema has put control mechanisms at all the borders of the country, at the airport and at Magerwa, where staff control all imports to make sure that plastic bags do not enter Rwanda.”
The environmentalist academic said that on January 7, a Rema inspection team raided various bakeries and supermarkets that were still using polythene bags and confiscated their goods while some of the offending businesses were temporary closed for not respecting the ban despite reminders.
Ban has been a success
Dr Mukankomeje believes that Rwanda’s stance on plastic bags will not be affected by their emergence.
“Despite this, the ban has been a success and Rwandans are proud of the achievement and gladly follow the regulations,” she said. “There is no worry that the achievement will not be sustained because these people smuggling in plastic bags are very few and efforts will always be maintained to fight them.
“No great success comes without challenges.”