The New Times (Kigali)

20 August 2012

Rwanda: Who Is Smuggling Plastic Bags?

Despite a nationwide ban on the importation and use of plastic bags in the country, The New Times has learned that they are still being illegally sneaked into the country.

The bags are used to pack and wrap groceries in various supermarkets, shops and markets around Kigali city.

In 2004, lawmakers passed a law prohibiting the manufacturing, importation, use and sale of polythene bags in the country and since then, traders had ardently adopted the use of paper bags.

The small black and white environmentally unfriendly bags are now resurfacing. In Kimironko and Nyabugogo markets, the polythene bags, especially the small white ones are used openly.

Most of the traders in Kimironko who talked to The New Times acknowledged they knew it was illegal to use the plastic bags. "We know it's illegal but we have nothing to do", an elderly woman selling fresh beans said.

They however, did not want to reveal how they acquire the environmentally unfriendly bags.

A supermarket attendant at the Gishushu area of Remera suburb of Gasabo District, who preferred anonymity, spoke of a cartel that clandestinely delivers the illegal bags to their shops.

"We also use them secretly because we know it's illegal," she said, adding that they are delivered to the shops by the dealers.

Those who deal in the polythene bags use the code-name 'me-to-you" when dealing with the traders so as to evade arrest.

"Me to you" is a term usually used in the sharing of phone credit.

Research shows that most plastic bags end up in landfills and take long to biodegrade thus posing a threat to the agricultural sector.

Similarly, many animals like cows and goats die once they swallow pieces of the plastic bags while they eat.

When contacted, the Director of Environmental Regulation and Pollution Control Unit at Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA), Remy Norbert Duhuze acknowledged the presence of the banned materials on the market.

"We are now changing the strategy we want to establish our internal inspectors who would impound these bags and arrest the dealers," he said.

Duhuze disclosed that recently about six people were caught and arrested around the Nyabugogo area.

"When you arrest one trader he notifies his partners and they hide the bags and that is why we want to change the strategy,"

According to Duhuze, the bags are smuggled into the country through porous borders along the Rwanda- Uganda border as well as other areas bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He said more efforts will be exerted inspecting all the borders.

A suspect caught using the plastic bags faces a range of penalties ranging from a fine of Rwf30,000 to a prison terms.

The East African Legislative Assembly (EALA), in early February this year, passed the Polythene Materials Control legislation amid calls on East African Community partner states to emulate Rwanda on the implementation of the policy.

The bill will provide a legal framework for the preservation of a clean and healthy environment through the prohibition of manufacturing, sale, importation and use of polythene materials in the region.

Rwanda's EALA member Patricia Hajabakiga, who moved the motion for the anti-polythene law, said that it is intended to control the use of polythene bags in the region and advocated for a total ban on plastics.

The presence of chemicals in polythene bags affects soil fertility and hence plant yields, while burning of polythene bags releases hazardous gases and harmful chemicals into the atmosphere.

The single-use plastic bags are also known for their interference in ecosystems and the part they play during catastrophes such as floods to clog drainage systems.

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