Earth Day 2024: Uganda keen on ending plastic pollution

Apr 19, 2024

The government has introduced stringent measures aimed at restricting the use of single-use plastics, a bold step that aligns with the East African nation's broader agenda of fostering sustainability and preserving its rich natural heritage.

Plastic is increasingly becoming an obstacle in the fight against climate change. Photos By Javier Silas Omagor

Javier Silas Omagor
Journalist @New Vision

Next Monday (April 22), Uganda will join the rest of the world to celebrate Earth Day with a commitment to combat plastic pollution.

The government has introduced stringent measures aimed at restricting the use of single-use plastics, a bold step that aligns with the East African nation's broader agenda of fostering sustainability and preserving its rich natural heritage.

“For us to achieve the expected outcome of the fight against plastic pollution, the approach must be collective," said Alfred Okot Okidi, the environment ministry's permanent secretary.

With Earth Day in mind, he urged users of plastic materials to use and dispose of them responsibly.

TGS Environment Club members showing off some of their waste bins.

TGS Environment Club members showing off some of their waste bins.

“Right now, quite a good percentage of the plastic products end up in drainage channels and end up contaminating our drainage channels, which is creating floods in some areas.

Okidi said water bodies and soils are also bearing the brunt of plastics pollution.

Uganda has been criticized for poor enforcement of plastic use compared to its neighbours such as Rwanda and Kenya.

“Government alone cannot do everything, it takes the right mindset amongst its citizens to appreciate the proper conservation practices," said Okidi.

Basing on the National Environmental Act of 2019, the environment ministry says it is working to introduce a framework that covers the extended producer responsibility in a bid to promote responsible usage.

“You as the manufacturer of these packaging plastic products, you should be mindful about how the end of that plastic is handled," said the permanent secretary.

In its strategy, the ministry is also targetting the young generation.

They have an ongoing pilot study on including environment and conservation in the schools curriculum after consultation with the education ministry.

The idea is to instil the culture of conservation into students, who then can pass it on to their respective communities.

Okidi said it is about making the young people "environmentally exposed and conscious".

Permanent Secretary Ministry of Water and Environment Alfred Okidi planting a tree at Mt. Elgon Tree Growing Enterprise as other officials look on.

Permanent Secretary Ministry of Water and Environment Alfred Okidi planting a tree at Mt. Elgon Tree Growing Enterprise as other officials look on.

One such group that is walking the walk is Tororo Girls School, in Uganda's eastern district of Tororo. Here, students formed a vibrant multi-award-winning environment club which is seen as a model of conservation in the area.

“We targeted students because they can easily have the multiplier effect towards good environmental practices. So many learn from them when they go back to their communities,” said Abdul Barabwiriza, the school's environment club patron who is also the coordinator of the Green Schools Initiative implemented by New Vision.

As a club, the young conservationists have set aside time and a few resources to enable them to reach out to the neighbouring communities to create awareness and education as part of their celebrations to mark Earth Day.

“We also have trees which we shall be giving to the members of the communities upon sensitizing them on the benefits of protecting our earth,” club president Robinah Agado said.

'Plastic is lethal' 

Tororo Girls School also champions the fight against plastic pollution by indulging in plastic recycling.

Students led by Clara Musiime transform plastic waste into outdoor furniture, ropes and bins, among other products.

“Using the tops (covers) and seals of plastic bottles, we are able to make very strong and reliable ropes, bangles and so many other items," she said.

They do all this mindful of the disastrous effects of erratic weather patterns such drought, insufficient rainfall, windstorm and soil infertility.

“Plastic is so lethal to our environment among all the other causes of climate changes. That is why we are finding ways of reducing, reusing and recycling it," said Musiime.

“Our primary goal is to influence as many peers as possible to the environmental protection idea of plastic reduction, reuse and recyclement."

Inspiring communities

Uganda is one of the countries that bear the brunt of adverse effects of climate change.

Some of these prevalent shocks include the Mt. Elgon landslides, western Uganda floods, Karamoja drought, Sebei windstorms, Kampala flash-floods, and waterlogging in Teso and Bukedi sub-regions.

Jenipher Kakai, a resident of Bunyinza town council in Manafwa district, lost not only relatives, but also property, including her fertile land and home to landslides and floods.

“For everything I have gone through, I encourage the government to enhance our commitment towards environmental protection at all times,” she urged. 

In her village, she is now a champion of any effort geared towards protecting the environment.

In the middle of her semi-permanent house, Kakai has dug a trench to draw out water which usually fills up whenever it rains. 

“I do not want to see the catastrophic experiences we went through happen to anyone again, not here or anywhere. It is traumatizing.”

Kakai has influenced her village-mates to embrace adaptation of practices such as proper use of plastic products through reuse, recycling and reduction, tree-planting, soil and water retention through installation of percolation pits, trenches, river bank restoration and crop rotation.

“Our rivers are anchored on strong banks. Once again, the soil is retained and fertile while trees have helped us break the wind in addition to improved air quality,” she spoke of the impact of their community-driven interventions.

Health hazards

From the shores of Lake Victoria to the rural villages, plastic bags, bottles, and packaging litter the land and water bodies.

“These plastics affect our economy, especially the tourism sector, as no tourist wants to visit a country littered with plastics,” said Moses Mulindwa, an environment activist based in Kampala.

Despite global efforts to curb plastic use, sub-Saharan Africa is predicted to see a six-fold increase in plastic use by 2060, according to Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. 

The level of environmental pollution with littered plastic waste in particular has swallowed communities and learning institutions up to the neck. 

The dire consequences include choked waterways, contaminated soil, and suffocated wildlife.

“The lack of proper waste management infrastructure means that many Ugandans live amidst a sea of discarded plastic, exposing them to health hazards and diminishing their quality of life,” said Mulindwa.

Highlighting the human toll of irresponsible plastic disposal, the activist noted that the impoverished neighborhoods are often inundated with plastic waste, turning once vibrant streets into desolate landscapes.

Dr Siraji Masai, the Kapchorwa district health officer, said that the proliferation of plastic waste provides breeding grounds for disease vectors, increasing the risk of outbreaks of malaria, dengue fever, and other illnesses.

“The leaching of toxins from plastic into soil and water poses long-term health risks for Ugandans, including cancer, reproductive problems, and neurological disorders,“ he said.

In Ugandan cities such as Mbale, authorities are marking Earth Day with enhanced education and sensitization targeting the youth.

"We are engaging the youth and other age groups to collect plastics and recycle them and this is paying off so far," said Rhoda Nyaribi, the Mbale city principal environment officer.

The same young people are tasked with not only practisng but also encouraging the general public to reduce use of single-use plastics (disposables) and instead resort to reusable ones as well as avoid irresponsible dumping.

“For the last couple of months, we have engaged in cleaning campaigns such as the “Keep Mbale clean 'imilisa'”.

She affirmed the government’s commitment and strong political will towards conservation.

“Government has in place a proactive strategy which has already produced results. The outcome might not be to our expectations, but through collective and individual endeavors, each one of us has a role to play.”

On the Earth Day celebrations, Nyaribi said it is imperative to heed the lessons of the past and chart a course towards a more resilient and regenerative future.

According to Nazipher Abigaba of the National Forestry Authority (NFA), the environmental needs of the present should not compromise the future generation.

“Our efforts as a country must be doubled,” she said. “The perception of conservation among Ugandans still varies among different groups, communities and individuals."

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