Photo taken from: https://plasticoceans.org/rwanda-plastic-bag-ban/
When you read the title of this blogpost up until the colon, you might think I have lost my mind. Rwanda as a country still has as a bad connotation due to the genocide that took place in 1994. In the 24 years after this genocide, a lot has changed in this small East African country that made this scattered community become tight and surprisingly, fairly environmentally conscious. This consciousness is reflected in its mentions in tops of environmentally friendly countries . Rwanda is most known for being one of the few countries that has established a ban on plastic bags. I think that countries as well as individuals can learn something from the massive change that Rwanda underwent, both from an environmental as well as from a societal perspective.
On the 6th of April, 1994, both the president of Rwanda and Burundi died in a plane crash that was caused by a rocket attack. This event sparked the fights that took almost 1 million lives in a little over three months in one of the worst massacres this world has ever seen. By the 4th of July, 1994, most of the killing had stopped and the opposition party Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took control . From July 1994 onwards, the traumatized community of Rwanda started to rebuild their destroyed homeland in a fascinating way. I will give you the highlights.
By the year 2000, the Rwandan government released a VISION 2020 document  that stated the goals the country wants to achieve by the year 2020 when it comes to healthcare, poverty, a safe community and sustainability. The environmental part of this paper is not extensive, but it has been supported by a Rwanda – State of the Environment and Outlook Report , which elaborates on the environmental state at that moment and the way forward from that current situation. It was in 2003 that the government through its environmental agency, the REMA, supported the National University of Rwanda in its research on the plastic bag situation in Rwanda . The study sketched the situation that was created by the use of plastic in Rwandan society. The bags were often thrown away after being used only one time and they frequently ended up on the streets, in bodies of water or other parts of the environment. Draining systems became clogged with plastic bags, which costed lives and money. The people that did not litter their plastic bags, got rid of them by burning the bags, releasing toxic compounds into the air. Through this study, the seriousness of the matter at hand became apparent to the Rwandan government. Since Rwanda did not have the capability to establish a solid recycling system of polythene bags, the Rwandan government only had one way of dealing with this problem: a nation-wide ban.
In 2004, the Rwandan government publicized their plan to ban plastic bags through TV channels and the monthly community work day Umuganda. Umuganda takes place on every last Saturday of the month and every household needs to send in one member over 18 years old to help the community . This help can be in the form of cleaning, helping someone to repair his roof or working on the infrastructure of the village. After the physical work, everyone gets together for the community meeting, through which news is spread, like tips on how to avoid malaria. Also, community issues are sorted out, like disagreements between inhabitants. Through these community meetings, the government reached out to the Rwandan people to inform them about the harmful effects of the plastic bags. The government also made the clearing away of plastic bags in the community environment a priority during the Umaganda. Initially, the plastic bag manufacturers in Rwanda were unpleasantly surprised with the ideas of banning their product, but the government helped them switch their factories from producing to recycling plastic that was still going around Rwanda. By 2008, Rwanda enforced their “Law relating to the prohibition of manufacturing, importation, use and sale of non-biodegradable polythene bags”. This ban includes strict border control and fines for anyone who makes use of plastic bags. Furthermore, the black market on plastic bags that emerged as a reaction to this ban, has been closely monitored wherever possible. Finally, research into plastic bag alternatives has been supported by the REMA . Lately, the economical aspect of the ban emerged, as the country is much cleaner than neighbouring countries, resulting in an increase of tourism in Rwanda .
The most important factor in the quick implementation of the ban on polythene bags in Rwanda compared to the Western world is the authoritarian regime compared to the Western democracies. Rwandan people who were interviewed in the light of this ban, noted that when new legislation was put into place from higher up, the community would take it very serious . This is a massive difference with the democratic Western countries, where the implementation of a tax on plastic bags already took a long time. What we learn from this case study is that even though the law has been established by the government in a top-down manner, there is still a grassroots approach from Umuganda where the whole community helps to make this law a successful one. Hopefully, the case that Rwanda makes inspires other countries to act in a similar way.
Want to know more?
If you are interested, this critical article on the general development of Rwanda is a good read. Additionally, this short documentary on the plastic bag ban in Rwanda gives an interesting insight on the matter.
- Pantsios A. 2018. Top 10 Greenest Countries in the World. EcoWatch. [accessed 2018 Apr 4]. https://www.ecowatch.com/top-10-greenest-countries-in-the-world-1881962985.html
- Outreach Programme on the Rwanda Genocide and the United Nations. 2018. Un.org. [accessed 2018 Apr 4]. http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/rwanda/education/rwandagenocide.shtml
- Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning. 2000. RWANDA VISION 2020. Kigali: Republic of Rwanda. [accessed 2018 Apr 4]
- Singh, Ashbindu & E. Barr, Jane & Lund, Gyde & Tovivo, Kouasslgan & Tilahun, Mesfin & Apindi Ochieng, Eugene & Giese, Kim & Nyamihana, Camille. (2015). Rwanda – State of Environment and Outlook Report 2015. 10.13140/RG.2.1.5148.6328.
- Danielsson M, Wockelberg H, Maycraft Kall W. 2017. The Plastic Bag Ban in Rwanda: Local Procedures and Successful Outcomes. Uppsala University. [accessed 2018 Apr 4]
- Umuganda: Rwanda’s day of community cleaning – Peril Of Africa. 2017. Perilofafrica.com. [accessed 2018 Apr 4]. http://perilofafrica.com/umuganda-rwandas-day-community-cleaning/
- Imirasire. 2015. Rwanda tourism fetches 305 million U.S. dollars in 2014. [accessed 2018 Apr 4]. http://eng.imirasire.com/news/economy/article/rwanda-tourism-fetches-305-million
- Froidbise A, Malm T. 2018. Behind the Scenes of the Plastic Bag Ban in Rwanda: Connections to Culture, Power and Sustainability. Lund University. [accessed 2018 Apr 4]
Hardin T. 2018. Rwanda Plastic Bag Ban | PlasticOceans.org. Plastic Oceans Foundation. [accessed 2018 Apr 4]. https://plasticoceans.org/rwanda-plastic-bag-ban/
5 thoughts on “Rwanda as a role model: the plastic bag ban”
Very interesting read! While we are struggling to deal with these bad bag habits, this case proves how it is still not wholly unrealistic to live without them. Overuse of plastic bags is indeed a serious issue, and I hope that these success stories will hopefully “arrive” here as well.
However, I’m assuming that mainly paper and cloth bags are used as a replacement for plastic bags. Have you looked into the difference with regards to their environmental impact? I believe that those cloth bags have to be used quite a lot in order reduce its impact compared to that of a plastic bag. Also, shouldn’t we focus more on a change in the usage of plastic bags instead of advocating such a ban? If we’d compare the different bag types, you could conclude that all have their specific environmental impacts (during production, use and after). It’s also the abundance of plastic bags that makes people use them irresponsibly. What do you think will be the most effective way to tackle this problem? A plastic bag ban? change in usage? or maybe research into plastic bag alternatives?
You’re raising some good points, Wino. I agree that it would make sense to critically look into alternatives of plastic bags, e.g. cloth, and perform life cycle assessments to determine in which way / at what point they are more sustainable. When it comes to the question of whether to advocate a ban I think there is no one-fits-all situation. While most countries would do well to radically reduce their plastic use, there’s big differences in the disposal infrastructures of different countries. I can imagine that a ban of plastic bags will have bigger impacts on countries that struggle with waste disposal and recycling.
I like the points you bring up Wino, I agree with Sarah that this matter is very ‘wicked’ as the success of any strategy depends on the society and environment it is used in. As noted in this paper (https://politicalcalculations.blogspot.nl/2012/06/paper-plastic-or-cloth-which-bag-is.html#.WtXuAIhubIU), cloth bags actually have a higher environmental impact than paper and plastic bags, so I feel like this is not the way to go. What I find very interesting is that in this source it is noted that when the re-usage of the plastic bags increases, it becomes a lot more environmentally friendly compared to the other two types of bags, which binds in very well with your point of human behaviour when it comes to bags. So up untill we found a bag that is both environmentally friendly in production and can withstand a lot of uses before a new one needs to be bought, I think we need to apply a combination of other means, like raising awareness and recycling, to reduce the footprint of the shopping bags.
I think you all raise some good points however, plastic bags have one environmental impact that we should not ignore when comparing to paper and cloth bags: plastic bags photo-degrade and never leave our environment. This allows the plastic bag to affect ecosystems and the environment in which they live in all sizes ranging from its original size to extremely small (micro-plastics), forever.
This topic and discussion greatly link to the new proposal of the European Commission to ban all single-use plastic items, so not only bags but also cotton swabs, straws, cutlery, plates and cups. Some products do not really need a replacement, such as straws, and for others like cups, the environmental impact of the substitute is proven to be less. I do not know how much these products are used in Rwanda, but this is interesting for the government to look into as well. According to the EC, these single-use plastic products make up 70% of the marine litter and implementing a ban would create many jobs. As decreasing marine litter is a worldwide benefit, the EU could for example work together with Rwanda to create recycling infrastructure, which would also benefit the economy of Rwanda. So in short, I want to emphasize the questions on which plastic products to focus and how to work together on international level to involve as many countries as possible, also the ones with lower financial means and less infrastructure available.