Tuesday,October 27,2020 06:08 AM

Polythene: the silent killer

By Vision Reporter

Added 5th October 2007 03:00 AM

A cloud of houseflies; a stench wafts from a blocked drainage channel in the city centre. Piles of polythene bags are holding sticky, dirty water and rotting rubbish in the drainage channel.

A cloud of houseflies; a stench wafts from a blocked drainage channel in the city centre. Piles of polythene bags are holding sticky, dirty water and rotting rubbish in the drainage channel.

By Gerald Tenywa and Conan Businge

A cloud of houseflies; a stench wafts from a blocked drainage channel in the city centre. Piles of polythene bags are holding sticky, dirty water and rotting rubbish in the drainage channel.

This scene in Katwe is replayed in many parts of Kampala City and the mushrooming towns across the country. The poor disposal of plastic bags has become one of the biggest environmental challenges and prompted the Government to come up with measures to curb their use.

“We have imposed a ban on the plastic bags of 30 microns or less,’’ says Jessica Eriyo, the state minister for environment.

The banned plastic bags are very thin and have been commonly used to pack sugar, salt, fruit juice and flour. Most of them are transparent or black and are sold at sh50 or below.

According to the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), those caught manufacturing, importing, selling or using the banned buveera could pay a fine ranging from sh360,000 to sh36m or be imprisoned for up to three years.

The thicker types of polythene bags, typically costing sh100 or more, have not been banned. However, an excise duty of 120% has been levied on them. As a result their prices will rise. This will force buyers to use them repeatedly before disposal, or resort to other types of bags that are environmentally friendly.

Dr. Aryamanya Mugisha, the executive director of NEMA says the use of plastic bags started about two decades ago.

Because they were cheaper, water-proof and easier to carry, buveera out-did the more environmentally friendly paper bags that were predominant in the early 1980s and before the traditional bags made of sisal or palm leaves.

Currently, the local production stands at about 700 tonnes annually, while importation is estimated at 40,000 tonnes. Thus, only 10-20% of the buveera used in Uganda are produced locally.

Recent figures from Uganda Revenue Authority indicate that between 2002 and 2003, the importation of polythene bags doubled (from 487,058kg to 1,095,289kg).

In Kampala alone, NEMA estimates that 1-20% of household garbage is plastic.

Because buveera cannot decompose, those that are disposed off remain in the environment for years.

Today, the polythene bags have become an eye sore; hanging from railings, branches of trees, lying in heaps of refuse, floating on the surfaces of water bodies and clogging water channels. Slum dwellers in Kampala who lack latrines use buveera as ‘flying toilets.’

According to NEMA, polythene carrier bags and materials do not readily break down in the environment and can take between 20-1,000 years to do so.

“The amount of polythene carrier bags and materials in the environment is in effect cumulative, with approximately over 1,000,000 bags of polythene and materials being added to the environment each year,’’ reads a statement released by NEMA.

It is common practice for people to pack kitchen refuse in buveera. This, however, makes it harder for the otherwise degradable wastes to decompose.

Livestock that eat such buveera are at a risk of death because their digestive system could be blocked. In water bodies, many fish and other aquatic animals swallow the plastic garbage, mistaking it for food. Such fish can be choked to death.

As explained by the NEMA chief, the ban is meant to save the public from environmental hazards. It remains to be seen how effectively it will be implemented.

In Saturday Vision’s survey in shops, markets and taxi parks in Kampala, polythene bags were still predominantly used for packing commodities, in comparison to paper and bags made from local materials.

Most traders argued that it was still hard to sell foodstuff, without using buveera. “I know polythene bags are bad, but how do these people expect us to move on without alternatives for packing goods for our customers?” Alex Mukasa, a vendor in Nakasero market, asked.

Most of the vendors also argued that they still had a big stock of buveera, which they wanted to sell off. A number could be seen with piles of polythene bags in markets around town.

However, in Nakasero and Nakawa markets, using locally made shopping bags is already underway.

“I would not like to struggle with law enforcement officers, because of a kaveera,” explained an elderly woman in Nakasero market.

Some shoppers got a rude shock at Nakasero when they were denied the usual packing materials.

“I thought the shopkeeper was joking when he gave me unwrapped soap,’’ said Sam Walusimbi.

Another shopper, Edward Iga, says after sermons at his Church about being a steward of nature, he has dropped the idea of using plastic bags and straws. “I now move with two bags in my car and I feel that I am a responsible citizen.’’

Other shoppers say they have started avoiding plastic bags for fear of being arrested. “I decided to carry the pile of books and a pineapple because I did not want anybody to stop me over kaveera,’’ said one.

In Gulu, it is business as usual and nobody seems to be bothered by the ban. “There are no serious alternatives for buveera. I doubt the effectiveness of the law,” said a resident. Some people, however, say it might be like the laws on seat belts and public smoking, which were announced but forgotten after a few months.

Polythene: the silent killer

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