My friend grinned sheepishly, looking up from a New Vision article quoting Uganda’s Minister of State for Environment, Flavia Munaaba, who appeared before the Natural Resources Committee of Parliament and announced that new measures to enforce the ban on polythene bags (kaveera) would occur in six
By Melody Kukundakwe
My friend grinned sheepishly, looking up from a New Vision article quoting Uganda’s Minister of State for Environment, Flavia Munaaba, who appeared before the Natural Resources Committee of Parliament and announced that new measures to enforce the ban on polythene bags (kaveera) would occur in six months. The mid-August 2014 announcement would make the ban effective by the middle of February 2015.
Skepticism among Ugandans is understandable. The push for a ban on kaveera has been going on for more than a decade now. Yet, discarded white, black, blue and green plastic bags are seen everywhere, on the streets, in peoples’ gardens and clogging up drainage systems.
In 2002, Greenwatch Uganda, a non-government environmental rights advocacy NGO, filed a suit against the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the Attorney General in the High Court. Prior to this, there were a series of actions and petitions by environmentalists and concerned citizens imploring government to rid the environment of kaveera. Greenwatch sought a declaration that the manufacture, distribution, use, sale, disposal of plastic bags and containers, plastic food wrappers and all forms of plastic violates the right of Ugandans to a clean and healthy environment. Specifically, Greenwatch wanted a ban on the manufacture, use, distribution and sale of plastic bags and containers of less than 100 microns thick, the type where your goods will be packed after visiting a shop or supermarket.
In addition, Greenwatch sought an order directing the Attorney General and NEMA to issue regulations for the use and disposal of all other plastics whose thickness is more than 100 microns thick. This included regulations on recycling and re-use of all other plastics.
Greenwatch also demanded that an environmental restoration order be issued against the Attorney General and NEMA directing them to restore the environment to the state in which it was before it was destroyed by plastics in addition to an order directing importers, manufacturers, and distributors of plastics to meet the costs of environmental restoration. NEMA did concede plastics violate the right to a clean and healthy environment but asserted it was putting regulations in place. No such regulations have ever been made to date. A private member’s Bill supported by environmental policy NGOs seeking to regulate the importation and manufacture of polythene materials and plastic bags has never been allowed to go through Parliament.
Five years after the matter was filed in court, the then Minister of Finance Planning and Economic Development, Hon. Hajjat Saida Bbumba announced a ban on the importation, use and production of polythene bags of 30 microns and below during the budget speech of 2007. The ban also imposed a 120% tax on plastic bags between 30 and 100 microns.
The ban was enforced by NEMA personnel; shop keepers and supermarket chains stopped using the very thin kaveera, but instead stocked more of the thicker ones. This made the 30 micron kaveera ban ineffective. Then there was an outcry from producers and importers of kaveera; citing unfairness in the process, that they were not given ample time to sell off stock in their possession before the ban. Within a few weeks, supermarkets and retail shops resumed packing products in plastic bags. Customers were back to using kaveera.
On October 5, 2012, the ruling was delivered 10 years after the suit filed in 2002. Justice Eldad Mwangutsya declared that polythene/plastic bags violate the right of the citizens of Uganda to a clean and healthy environment and ordered that the drafting of the bill (seeking the regulation and use of all plastics less than 100 microns) be expeditiously done to protect the environment from any further harm and damage already caused by these bags.
It is 2014 and kaveera is still one of the biggest challenges in waste management in Uganda. Because of the poor handling, disposal habits and mannerisms, polythene bags end up in drainages thereby blocking them and inconveniencing people especially when it rains. The inability of polythene bags to break down when disposed of has furthermore caused rampant disease outbreaks resulting for instance from stagnant water in drainage systems.
A number of food vendors use kaveera in preparing food, thus putting the health of those who eat such food at risk. A report from Makerere University's School of Food Technology Nutrition and Bio-engineering noted that food cooked in polythene bags is likely to cause cancer as a result of gases and chemicals released from the generated heat.
In many homes, kaveera is used for lighting charcoal stoves and in the preparation of food as well. Even people who are aware of the negative health impacts from this constant exposure to fumes from burning kaveera continue their usual practices.
One solution to the uncontrolled kaveera is the use of paper bags. The government should provide support to paper bag manufacturers such as Beta bags and Youth Entrepreneurial Link Investments. Moving from plastic bags to paper bags will go a long way towards solving the problem and in the end, more jobs will be created.
Uganda is not the only country that struggles with the issue. Among the countries addressing the problem are the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, United States where selected states and cities have issued a ban and Rwanda which has earned its place as one of the African nations that have managed the polythene bag issue well. As many as 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year.
Nobody argues the facts. Government leaders and concerned citizens acknowledge the problem. A ban is declared. Yet, there is no change in attitude and no action is enforced.
Now is the time for every concerned member of the public to be part of the solution. My hope is that the pledge by the Ministry of Water and Environment to rid our environment of kaveera by 2015 is not just another empty promise, but one that will offer a lasting solution to the menace that kaveera has caused over time.
The writer is a communication officer
The ban on kaveera is a thorn in the flesh