The scale of plastic waste pollution has become an increasingly important global issue. In 2017 it was reported that a million plastic bottles were purchased every minute around the world. Overconsumption and low levels of recycling have seen plastic pollution on the rise, especially affecting water systems, where tiny particles of plastic are now present in drinking water worldwide. Plastic waste reduction, and a shift to more sustainable consumption are priorities for many countries.
In Rwanda, the right of every citizen to enjoy a ‘healthy and satisfying environment’ in enshrined in the constitution. With this in mind, in 2004, the Ministry of Environment began to conduct studies on the use of plastic bags and their impact on the Rwandan environment. The study showed the impact to be overwhelmingly negative, and in 2008 the government of Rwanda took the decision to ban the use plastic bags in the country.
Rather than introducing a levy on plastic bags, as has been done in many countries, the regulation and standards instead prohibit all manufacturing, use, importing and selling of non-biodegradable bags that fall outside the sustainability criteria.
The Rwandan authorities supported companies that used to manufacture plastic bags by providing tax incentives for purchasing equipment to recycle plastic or manufacture environmental friendly bags.
Local NGOs and citizens quickly took up the challenge to design alternative bags, mostly made from natural materials like cotton or banana leafs, that are more environmentally friendly and sustainable. These cottage industries have helped reduce poverty and create non-agricultural based jobs for Rwandans.
Unsurprising, implementing a drastic policy like an all-out ban was not without its difficulties. Chief amongst these is the emergence of a large black market for plastic bags. While this was caused to some extent by an unwillingness to change demand habits, more important was a lack of alternatives: Rwanda had at the time no industries that produced environmentally friendly, reusable bags. Huge investments were also required to expand nascent recycling capacities.
Rwanda was the first country in the world to install a blanket ban on plastic bags. In the future other countries can learn from the success factors and lessons learnt in this case. GML is estimated to be 7.