Uganda in plastic bag ban dilemma

Monday April 13 2015

A dumping site choking with plastic shopping

A dumping site choking with plastic shopping bags. Uganda's environmental regulator intends to enforce a phased ban on the use of plastic bags starting with major retailers on Wednesday April 15. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By Michael Wakabi

Uganda’s Trade and Industry Minister Amelia Kyambadde has called an urgent meeting of stakeholders to resolve the policy confusion surrounding the future of plastic bags.

The meeting, scheduled for April 14, will be attended by representatives of the ministries of Finance, Trade, Water and environment as well as plastic manufacturers and the Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA).

Uganda’s environmental regulator, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), intends to enforce a phased ban on the use of plastic bags starting with major retailers on Wednesday April 15.

“We have opted to start with the large retailers because they constitute the bulk of the market,” NEMA Executive Director Dr Tom Okurut told The EastAfrican.

The $9 million plastic recycling industry directly employs over 6000 people in Uganda.

“We are in a dilemma because on the one hand we have been told to invest in recycling capacity and appeal for amendment of the law to accommodate those efforts, and on the other we now see NEMA ordering a ban without considering the fact there is a process in progress to harmonise the law with the reality on the ground,” complains Mr Naim Sabra, treasurer of plastics industry lobby the Uganda Plastic Manufacturers and Recyclers Association (UMPRA).

“We have established a plastic waste value chain that people are now fighting for plastic waste so much that it is now difficult for recyclers to find enough,” he adds.

According to Mr Sabra, plastic manufacturers have not been notified of the ban by NEMA.

The regulator's action follows a refusal by parliament’s Budget committee early last month to approve NEMA’s budget allocations for the coming financial year unless they implemented provisions of the July 2009 Finance Act prohibiting the manufacture, importation and distribution of plastic bags below 30 microns.

UMPRA says the regulator’s action runs counter to an ongoing process to amend the law in recognition of their efforts to establish recycling capacity and a vibrant value chain in plastics.

“We would have expected NEMA to be responsible enough to update Parliament on what we have jointly been doing to address the problem of plastic waste on a more sustainable basis, especially given the fact that the country is soon going into oil production,” UPRA Chairman Mr Lugwana Kaggwa told The EastAfrican.

Lugwana also questions the viability of the proposed ban given that more than half the offending polythene bags are smuggled or dumped into Uganda from Kenya. More so, the targeted retail chains – Capital Shoppers, Game, Nakumatt, Quality, Shoprite and Uchumi, account for only a fraction of the bags in circulation.

“The problem here is two-fold. First the targeted supermarkets who buy from us use the high gauge 30 micron bags which to the best of our understanding are allowed by law yet enforcement has failed to deal with the problem bags that are actually smuggled from Kenya and are widely used across the country,” Lugwana said.

According to another plastic recycler who did not want to be named, the industry would need at least six months’ notice to switchover to alternative packaging but under the present circumstances, Kenya which already has a well-established paper industry would be the source of paper packaging.

James Kisaale, an Assistant Commissioner for Enforcement at the Uganda Revenue Authority agrees.

“For as long as Kenyan manufacturers continue to produce the thin bags, a ban here is impractical because it will continue to be a source despite our best efforts to impound,” he says, adding that the other problem is that the current environmental laws do not provide policy alternatives to plastic bags.

Between 2012 and 2014, the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) confiscated 20,000 tons of underweight bags but large numbers still slip through.

Lugwana adds that retailers across the country prefer the thinner bags because they get more pieces per unit of weight sold compared to what they would get if they bought thicker Uganda manufactured bags.

The confusion at policy level was further compounded after NEMA ordered a blanket ban even though the oversight committee wants only carrier bags below 30 microns banned.

“We have made it clear to them that we would not pass their budget unless they effect the ban on carrier bags below 30 microns. What I know is that 90pc of the plastic bags made in Uganda are recycled but URA has failed to control smuggling and dumping from Kenya,” says Mr Achia Remigio, vice chair of the Budget Committee.

Michael Werikhe, the chairperson of the Natural Resources Committee is also surprised that NEMA is trying to enforce a blanket ban.

“We never talked of a blanket ban and there is no new ban. All we are asking is that the law we passed back in 2009 be implemented and we are aware that the industry here is recycling and we are supportive of those efforts but then problem is bags from Kenya,” he said.

Dr Okurut however insists that the ban will go ahead in spite of what parliament says.