OVERCOMING THE CURSE OF PLOYTHENE BAGS IN UGANDA

This past couple of weeks I have delighted in showing off my fancy environmentally friendly basket bags – made out of recycled material. I purchased my bags from enterprising and innovative young ladies whom I met on 31st January 2015 at the “Power Breakfast”, an event that is regularly organised by my friend Joan Mugenzi under the auspices of her business mentoring consultancy “Holding each other’s hands all the way”. These enterprising young ladies impressed me for they are myth busters – they do not fit the typical imagery in the popular media about Uganda’s youth unemployment crisis with all its ills and scares. They were beautifully composed and confident in their product; and so they should for their product was impressive – particularly the finish of their baskets.

At the power breakfast they had only brought small baskets, of which I bought five in three different colours. The small baskets that I bought were what I was looking for to solve the mess on my dressing table – my necklaces of beads African style have since been tamed. At the power breakfast, I asked the young ladies if they had and/or could make me bigger basket bags primarily for carrying my computer and paper-based documents and also my groceries. We discussed designs, shape, size, colour and they agreed to deliver to me samples from which I could choose. Shortly after the power breakfast the ladies delivered to my assistant three bags of different colours, I was away travelling on business. When I got back I saw the three bags and fell in love with them all. I instructed my assistant to mobile money the payment for all three bags and a fantastic business deal had been completed.

All this happened months before Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) finally decided to enforce a ban on polythene bags as shopping carrier bags. NEMA gave supermarkets and farmers markets a deadline to phase out polythene bags; and by the time the deadline arrived on 15th April 2015 they have seemingly complied. NEMA’s ban of polythene shopping bags has since become one of the much talked about subject with many lamenting the crisis of no-polythene bags for shopping. “What does the Government want us to do now? How will we carry our shopping home? Why did the Government not first find an alternative for us before banning polythene bags?” The incredulous and purposeless lamentations continue. Then the big shocker, in order to enforce the ban on polythene bags, the Government is reportedly planning to compensate for loss of business those who invested in and have profited from producing polythene bags?

Perhaps a historical context might help at this point. In November 2001, fourteen years ago, as part of a tutor marked assignment for my Master of Science Degree studies I wrote a description of the curse of polythene bags in Uganda as an environmental issue about which I felt strongly and which I had a stake. I wrote:

Slightly over 10 years ago (now over 24 years ago), it was very rare to see or find Ugandans using polythene bags to package and/or carry their shopping. However, these days, people go into a shop and/or market expecting their purchases to be packed in polythene bags. It is not uncommon for one to leave a shop with over 10 polythene bags each time they go shopping. After all, each item is packed separately in a separate polythene bag and then the smaller items, already packed in small polythene bags, are packed in bigger polythene bags (sometimes doubled up) for ease of carrying.
The problems come when the time comes to dispose the polythene bags.

The traditional way of disposing garbage, which is still quite widely practiced in Uganda, is in garbage pits (hole in the ground). This system works well as long as the garbage disposed has the capacity to decompose. Polythene does not decompose. It is therefore a common site in Uganda these days to find piles of garbage. Most city councils are suddenly faced with a huge task of finding other ways in which to dispose garbage. They find themselves with the need for more garbage trucks, which come with extra running and maintenance costs. The garbage trucks are required in order to ferry garbage to designated garbage sites. The designated garbage sites are also getting choked and soon there will be no where to dispose garbage. There is also the added problem that people do not always dispose their garbage into the garbage pits, where it can be systematically collected. They just throw it anywhere, wherever the package was opened, or where the consumption took place. So, generally, you find large areas littered with garbage, especially polythene bags. The fact that polythene does not decompose is a danger in the sense that it chokes the land. Garbage that decomposes has its uses like rejuvenating soil (manure).

In addition, there have been several reports that polythene is threatening the lives of animals, particularly domestic animals, such as livestock, which feed on grass, peels, etc. There have been incidences in which disposed polythene bags have ended up mixed in garbage, such as green banana peels, which is fodder for animals such as cows and goats. By mistake the animals swallowed bits of polythene and choked to death.

I feel so strongly about this issue because we, ordinary people, as opposed to government, can do something about it, if we were not so selfish and lazy. I recall as a young child, whenever we went with my mother to the market or to the shops, she always had shopping baskets (made out of palm leaves mostly). Our purchases were put directly in these baskets (various fruits, fresh foodstuffs, etc.) and when we got home we would sort them, wash them and put them in their respective storage places. The shopping baskets were cleaned and kept for the next time we went shopping. Even when the baskets become old and unusable, they were dumped in the garbage pit and they would decompose. In addition, we had containers that could be re-used for storing items such as sugar, salt, tea leaves, cooking oil, etc. Instead of packaging these items in polythene bags, shop owners would expect shoppers to come with their re-usable containers and their purchases would be put directly in those containers. Paper bags were also more widely used as opposed to polythene bags. It is the old fashioned way, and in some cases cumbersome, but it is certainly a more superior choice in terms of preserving the environment.

Instead, our selfishness and laziness is already destroying our environment and that of future generations. Moreover, we waste resources making the polythene bags, using them and trying to get rid of them. In this case, I agree with those who hold the view that we cannot afford to exclude environmental concerns as the rate at which we are using some of our resources and polluting air, soil, fresh waters and oceans must be reduced if we are to meet basic human needs both now and in the future. I have decided that, whenever possible, when I go to the market I go with a shopping basket and whenever I can, I will request the shop/stall attendant not to pack my purchases in a polythene bag. At least this is reducing the number of polythene bags that I use. Whenever possible I re-use my polythene bags. In addition, I lament about the way polythene is destroying our environment to whoever will listen, including to shop/stall attendants, my friends, my family, etc.
My past experience of shopping as a child with my mother has some influence on the way I think now about how we, as adults, pollute the environment just by the way we shop. My experience of a garbage littered city, provoked a thought process – how come? Why? Isn’t there a solution? This process enabled me to take a decision to do something, even if at a personal level. My decision to do something led to my choice not to use polythene bags unnecessarily. I hope that those around me we also feel the same way as I do about the damage that polythene bags are causing and that they will take some decisions and actions on their individual levels.

For this description I scored 31 of the 35 question points, that is to say I scored 89 percent; at Masters Degree level it is an awesome achievement. My tutor’s comment was: “Question answered clearly and directly, explaining your concerns about this issue very well … Does the government have a policy? Why were polythene bags introduced in the first place?”

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8 comments

  1. Godfrey Taulya · · Reply

    I am with you Norah. Banning the use of polythene shopping bags was a good step forward. I have followed the same decisions as you have for the past 3 years…. I do not take polythene bags from supermarkets unless when I really have to. I enforced strict discipline in sorting out plastics from biodegradable wastes in my home prior to disposal. Problem was, I often got stuck with where to dispose of my pile of plastic wastes. Then I resorted to handing over the 3-bagfuls of my plastic wastes that I had accumulated in a year to the truck that collects all other garbage from my neighbourhood though it really hurt my conscious that they were all ending up in the landfill at Kiteezi. Despite the ban, a lot of polythene remain in use: bread, milk, soft drinks, mineral water, cooking oil, clothes are packaged in plastics. These packaging materials may perhaps be inevitable, but do we really need disposable cups, plates and cutlery that are now becoming trendy with party-organizers? I think not; especially when the party animals do not give a damn about what happens to the materials they used to enjoy the delicacies served! Government needs to put in place disincentives for their continued use. Such materials need to be very heavily taxed such that it is cheaper to buy re-usable cutlery. The added revenue from this tax can then be used to fund clean-up operations. There are a lot of un-employed people who, for a decent pay, will do the dirty job of regularly combing the garbage piles for these poorly disposed used plastics, including mineral water and soft drink bottles. A lot of the plastics line the major highways in Uganda…. tells a lot about the mind set of our people!

    Another environmental disaster that has received no attention whatsoever are the energy-saver bulbs and used batteries. I was intrigued when I noticed in Europe that while I had to pay for collection of my garbage, my landlord personally replaced blown energy-saver bulbs and collected used batteries for disposal. One time, I went to a shop to buy another battery for my laptop and they declined to sell to me simply because I did not bring the spoilt battery for safe disposal. Reading about the energy saver bulbs and used batteries, I was shocked that back home, Ugandans just dump these hazardous materials along with other garbage. We are sitting on a time-bomb…. as bad as, if not much worse than regularly eating herbicide- and insecticide-laced food stuffs. Action should have been taken 20 years ago before mobile phones, computers and cars (=increased number of used batteries in need of disposal) and energy-saver bulbs became indispensable items in virtually all households. Yes, environmental management in Uganda is dubious.

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  2. Thanks Norah for stating it as it really is! I also come from Kenya where its the same story and nothing seems to work for poor folks. How I wish you could spread this message to all in Africa. Even where they started these plastics, their disposal is well organised and done! Whatever jinxed our Africa! So sad but lets keep talking please…

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    1. Let us continue to share and talk about it. I am glad you reblogged it and therefore increasing its reach!

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  3. Thanks. #Kaveera is part of the worrying consumerism trend that we have pursued over time as you rightly put it. The international community has finally woken up to say we need sustainable lifestyles – as in the them of this year’s World Environment Day. For NEMA Uganda it is thumbs up as long as this is a sustained campaign devoid of favors from anyone!

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    1. Sadly, Kimbowa those in the know tell me that NEMA only acted because MPs (mostly of the opposition) indicated to it that its budget would not be approved if it did not act and enforce a law that came into force way back in 2007!

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  4. Mujuni Kitimbo · · Reply

    You article reminds me of the demand we put on drivers, whether of public or private cars to drop us off at points of our choice in disregard of road use guidelines/rules. And there those of us who alight hardly 20 meters from the drop off point of the previous passenger! – The “mumaas’awo” syndrome.

    And this article makes me have second thoughts on the position that KCCA should first organize public transport before it starts restricting privates cars access to the city.

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    1. I partially agree with you Mujuni. Yes, that whole laziness of mu maso awo, moreover even when the person is not carrying anything heavy … I think that KCC can do both at the same time – sort out public transport and and restrict car access – the latter could actually be part of the solution for the former.

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