Ethiopia: Plastic Pollution - Ethiopia's Reaction

It is not unusual to come across expressions like somebody or something is "plastic" in modern spoken English to connote an attribute which is highly "unoriginal" or "artificial" or in most cases "fake". The etymology of the terms aside, single-use plastic bag, one of the most ubiquitous materials in the world today, is also one of the most important human inventions to date. Known to have emerged around 1800s, plastic is also one material that has evolved to become completely synthetic over the last century; although in the beginning it was a material which was synthesized from natural existing compounds found in oil, natural gas and coal and some plants.

Today, the bulk of plastic materials which are largely in use in the shopping industry around the world are polyethylene plastics made out mostly synthetic compounds whipped up in scientific laboratories. This perhaps appears to be most likely reason for the term plastic is so famously linked with a sense of unoriginality or fake.

The production of plastic in Ethiopia dates back to the time of Emperor Minilik II with the first firm launching the production of polyethylene plastics for packaging in Ethiopia as far back as early 1890s. Historical records indicate that Rain Proof was the name of the British-based company that established the first plastic producing plant in Ethiopia. Regrettably, the firm was forced to close down shop only after a short span of time in the country. Apparently, it was difficult for the company to win the hearts and minds of the then consumers. It failed to convince Ethiopians to use its plastic bags. That was the end of it.

Nearly a century after the departure of Rain Proof, life without plastics appears to be unbearable in Ethiopia. Consumables, household appliances, computers, cardboards, footwear and flip-flops, clothes, and the like have come to be under the heavy sway of plastics. In fact, this multibillion-dollar industry has taken over the whole world and concerns surrounding plastic is growing among the international community.

Accordingly, they have been introducing some stern laws to ban at least the use of single-use plastics: mostly plastic bags or plastic bottles--Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). In fact, PET includes dispensing containers, biscuit trays and the like.

By the estimates of UN Environment, one million plastic bottles are purchased every one minute across the world and a total of five trillion single-use plastic bags are used every year. It is also claimed that half of all the plastics produced globally are intended to be used only once and thrown away. Scientists estimate that since the 1950s, some 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced, with more than 60 percent of that making its way to landfills and the natural environment. Rivers are part of the problem and currently, including the River Nile, major water bodies of the world are believed to be carrying 90 percent of the eight million tons plastic waste dumped every year.

Recent media reports showed photos of dead sperm whales due to kilos and tons of ingested plastic wastes. The death of deer, turtles and ducks as a result of plastic tangling and suffocations is now becoming an everyday incident. The toxicity and hazardousness of plastics are what many experts fear; for humans are exposed to heavy metals and perhaps cancer related deaths as a result of plastic uses. Hence, serious bans of plastic bags or single-use plastics are trending across Europe, Asia and now in Africa to help reduce the ugly impacts of plastics on humans and animals and the environment.

The European Union is currently considering introduction of a law that totally bans single-use plastics across its member countries. In Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and a couple of others have banned single-use plastics, mainly shopping plastic bags.

Ethiopia, for long has been dragging its feet to ban plastic bagging until a few years ago where as many as 500 plastic manufacturing firms, that have acquired licenses to produce plastic materials were found to be violating laws. The solid waste proclamation number 513/2007 prohibits the manufacturing, importation and usage of plastic bags with thickness of 0.03 millimeter or less and with necessary requirements of manufacturing biodegradable plastics.

According to a monitoring mission undertaken in collaboration with the Climate Change Commission and the Addis Ababa Environmental Authority, since 2015, there were at least 486 plastic makers in Addis Ababa with a registered amount of 10 billion birr as capital. However, out of the 21 manufacturers that were supervised and inspected; 14 were found to be violating the law: These had manufactured plastic bags with thickness below 0.03 millimeters and they received warnings. Two years ago again, 11 factories were inspected and some have failed to comply. In addition to that, there are some 80 water bottling companies most of them are liable to the wide spared littered bottles in and out of the capital. Millions of bottles are thrown away on any open environ, these days.

Pursuant to the outcomes of monitoring and inspections, now the government seems to be considering the introduction of a total ban on manufactured or imported single-use plastics in Ethiopia. Girma Gemechu, director of solid and hazardous waste compliance monitoring directorate, with the Climate Change Commission, told The Reporter that a new law is about to be ratified by the nation's lawmaking body. Series of public hearings and consultations with manufacturers have been conducted and probably early next year, House of Peoples Representatives (HPR) is expected to sanction the proposed law to take effect.

Sisay Kifle, a chemist and plastic technology development consultant, begs to differ with the idea of banning single-use plastics. He argues that banning plastics is not a well-thought-out solution. "It's just idealistic", Sisay said. However, he is not a skeptic alone. He acknowledges the adverse impacts of plastic waste to human health, to the ecosystems and to the animal world.

According to Sisay, the government, the plastic manufacturers and the consumers are equally responsible for mismanaging and irresponsibly disposing plastic waste. Back in 2017, Sisay wrote a guidebook regarding plastic waste and how it should be handled and how used plastics as he refers to them as "trash-to-cash" systems could be sources of income and jobs.

However, that did not happen; "the government has to enforce the laws properly. The law that requires the production of plastics with greater than 0.03 millimeter thickness has not been enforced well," Sisay criticized. He also lamented plastic bags manufacturers for manipulating worldwide standards at least the UK based International Plastics Federation has standardizations.

Each plastic product has its own designated numbering and classification system and that is how plastic products are uniquely identified across the global structure. Local manufacturers are also challenged for violating such codes of standardizations.

Sisay criticizes the fact that there is no clear cut solution and contests biodegradables are decomposable and much preferable. He refutes, Ethiopia couldn't afford biodegradables since such materials are costly and at times require the utilization of grains, mostly corn. He further defies the blurredly hypothesized quicker decomposition of biodegradables compared to plastics. "Who could tell you certainly that biodegradables are easily decomposed in a certain period of time in a certain temperate or tropical zones?".

Though Sisay and many of the pro-plastic experts argue how useful plastics are, a tremendous pressure has been exerted against the use of at least use and throw plastics and the management of plastic wastes across countries and in the UN system.

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