By Gerald Tenywa
HE came, he saw the plastic bag menace, he decided to make paper bags for Kampalaâ€™s shoppers. So, a year ago, when restrictions were imposed on the use and manufacture of plastic bags, Jabir Luswaata thought this was the time for his efforts to bear fruits.
But, as with all the other paper bag manufacturers, Luswaataâ€™s dream has not come to pass. The plastic bags are still on the market and are, in many places, given out free.
â€œWe started making paper bags in anticipation that the ban would be implemented,â€ says Luswaata. â€œBut this ended up in tears for the paper bag makers and most of them have folded.â€
He says two years ago, his company, Jaco Commercial Agencies, as its slogan â€˜packaging solutionsâ€™ suggests, teamed up with a South African firm to make paper bags. In a short time, the paper bags that had kissed goodbye to the streets of Kampala about two decades ago made a come-back.
â€œThe response was overwhelming when word went round that we had started making the paper bags,â€ says Luswaata. â€œThere were so many inquiries and orders from companies making different kinds of products.â€
A paper bag for packing one kilogramme goes for sh56 and the largest that can be used for packing up to 15kgs goes for sh700, according to Luswaata who has been demonstrating the advantages of paper bags in 20 urban areas including Kampala.
Although the company, which also ventures into horticulture exports, has a capacity to produce four million paper bags per month, it currently produces 20,000 paper bags per day.
However, most of the interested clients have taken a letâ€™s-wait-and-see stance since the Government has not imposed a total ban on plastic bags, according to Luswaata.
â€œThis is because they can still pack their products in plastics, which they consider cheaper,â€ says Luswaata.
Even the makers of the most popular bread, Hot Loaf, a Ugandan company, use plastic bags (kaveera) to pack bread consumed here while they pack bread for export to Rwanda in ÂÂpaper bags.
â€œThere is kaveera which is even given free to the shoppers,â€ says Luswaata. â€œThe problem is that middle-men make a lot of money dealing in plastics.â€
Luswaata says most of their products are almost at the same retail price with plastics, but middlemen prefer dealing in plastics and not paper bags.
In the mean time, the paper making company has also decided to cross the border to Rwanda where they have are ready market.
â€œThe policy in Uganda does not work â€” why is it that bread exported to Rwanda is packed in paper?â€ Luswaata says.
The dangers of the plastic bags are well-known but kaveera proponents have been arguing that a total ban will result in unemployment and also deprive the Government of revenue.
But environment experts at the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) say the technology of making plastic bags does not employ so many people.
They also say investors in plastics have been around for sometime, they should have recovered their money and also harnessed alternatives.
â€œWe were anxiously looking forward to a total ban,â€ says Dick Lufafa, a NEMA official. â€œThe people advancing the issue of unemployment are getting it wrong because the paper makers will also provide employment.â€
Last year, the Government stifled public debate when it came up with measures of banning plastics of 30 microns and imposed a tax of 120% on the plastics of more than 30 microns.
Although the ban has been in place over the past one year, the problem of plastic bags has gone on and even increased. Critics argue that a total ban should have been imposed on the plastic bags.
As far back as the 1980s and early 1990s, environmentalists issued a stern warning about the dangers of plastic bags.
Countries like China, South Africa and Rwanda acknowledged the problem and imposed a total ban on plastics in order to save the environment, ending the talk with action. However, Uganda is still grappling with the problem.
Critics argue that Government intervention has not been cost-effective. NEMA officials are being diverted from other important work to police plastic bags yet what the industries pay is not commensurate to the damage or the money needed for the clean up.
They point out that the dangers of plastics include blocking of water filtration through the soil, affecting agricultural productivity.
The plastics are also blamed for rampant littering of the environment and disruption of water drainage.
Last month, Kenya decided to benefit from plastic bags by exporting the environmental problem to her neighbours. â€œImagine they have passed a bill to allow making plastics of 20 microns for domestic use and also produce plastics of 10 microns for export,â€ says Jessica Eriyo, the state minister for environment.
Eriyo also regretted that Kenya was slashing the tax imposed by the East African states on plastics of above 30 microns by half.
This, she said, was happening at the time East African countries were trying to harmonise the policy on plastic bags to curb smuggling it across the borders.
When it was time to impose a total ban, arguments that Uganda had to take the East African position came up, says Maria Mutagamba, the environment minister.
â€œWe had wanted a ban and even when restrictions were imposed, Uganda has been the only party implementing the partial ban on plastics,â€ she says. â€œThe other countries have flouted the measures.â€
Mutagamba says investors in plastics in Uganda have turned the pressure on her accusing her of favouring Kenyan companies.
Paper investors want a total ban on kaveera
Although Jaco Agencies are exporting paper bags to Rwanda, they have not forgotten their duty of being good citizens. â€œAs much as we are doing good business in Rwanda we have not forgotten our motherland Uganda,â€ Luswaata says.
â€œWe have been creating awareness and demonstrating that the use of paper bags as an alternative to kaveera saves the environment.â€
Luswaata says that what they want is not a subsidy, but a total ban on the plastics saying that this would be a good incentive to produce and use paper bags.
â€œWe do not need a soft landing in form of subsidies, he says. â€œWhat we need is a total ban for the good of the environment because the survival of human beings depends on it.â€