By Ronald Musoke
How government got stuck between environmentalists and manufacturers
On April 15 the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) started to enforce the ban on light weight carrier bags usually given to customers in shops. It was an act of unprecedented defiance as the day before, on April 14, none other than the Prime Minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, had issued an official government statement against NEMA enforcing the ban. It said the government was lifting the ban immediately ‘to allow for consultations.’
In an unusual move, however, NEMA took to the airwaves to insist that the ban was still on. Its officials said they had not received any official communication lifting the ban from the government.
The environmental agency also decided to make a frontal attack by raiding the biggest supermarkets. There was confusion as NEMA officials raided Capital Shoppers, Game, Nakumatt, Quality, Shoprite and Uchumi, and seized tonnes of the lightweight plastic shopping bags commonly referred to as ‘kaveera.’ Was the kaveera ban on or was it off? How could NEMA officials defy the prime minister? Were their jobs safe?Many wondered if this time the environmental watchdog was serious since this was not the first time NEMA had said they were to implement the law on polythene bags below 30 microns. Then, one day later on April 16, something equally unusual happened.The prime minister’s office issued another statement cancelling its April 14 position. It said, following ‘consultations’,the government had decided to go ahead with the ban while consultations continue.The statement said the ban applies to the importation, local manufacture, sale or use of polythene carrier bags but would exclude polythene packaging materials for use in agriculture, industries, medicine, research and science, sanitation, construction, and exports. It also directed manufacturers and distributors to establish polythene collection centres across the country and intensify public sensitisation on polythene waste management.
NEMA officials sighed with relief and in large shopping centres across the country there was a fumble to find new wrapping material for customers. Some improvised with boxes, others advised shoppers to carry satchels, and enterprising business people introduced bags for sale. The government said a committee had been set up and tasked with preparing a Cabinet Paper within 30 days to take a final decision on kaveera. Throughout the next month of May, shoppers appeared to accept that it was the end of kaveera.
But as Ugandans waited for the ministerial policy statement, on June 18, Jim Muhwezi, the minister of information and national guidance released a new statement saying the government had lifted the ban on plastic bags.
Apparently the government had acknowledged the ‘controversy’ surrounding the implementation of the ban and instituted an inter-ministerial committee to study the issue again. Interestingly, the next day, on June 19, another statement from his office said the ban was still on.
NEMA issued their own statement the same day, saying the ban on plastic carrier bags is still in force
So why does the government keep issuing these confusing statements to the public? And who exactly is responsible for the policy confusion?
The proposal to ban polythene bags first came out in financial year 2007/8 but failed. It was later enshrined in the Finance Act 2009 and the Finance (Permitted Plastic Bags and Other Plastics for Exceptional Use) regulations, 2010. But for over five years NEMA had failed to implement it.
Part of the problem is that the government is caught in between two very powerful constituencies, the environmentalists and the manufacturers. The manufacturers, recyclers, and traders who have been using ‘consultative meetings’ to lobby the government to lift the ban say they have invested massively in the last five years and are not ready to see their investments go to waste. They also cite job losses to thousands of employees. But the environmentalists insist the economic, health and social costs far outweigh the economic benefits.
NEMA, meanwhile, cites difficulty in distinguishing plastic bags of 30 microns from those above 30 microns.
Technically, a micron is a unit of length that equals one millionth of a metre according to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. In layman’s language, however, 30 microns is about as thick as two human hairs. In other words, very thin kaveera.
The problem, therefore, is not that bags of 30 microns and below are difficult to distinguish. Rather the problem is that the law is difficult to enforce and penalise offenders.
Shamim Nabatanzi, an administrator at the Uganda Plastic Manufacturers and Recyclers Association (UPMRA) told The Independenton June 24 that there are up to 60 firms manufacturing kaveera in the major Ugandan towns of Kampala, Mukono, Jinja, Wakiso and Mbarara. She says, however, UPMRA has half that number registered as members because some of the firms do not want to be identified.
Presumably then, each of these is manufacturing the same ubiquitous black, white, or yellow light weight shopping bags and the even lighter transparent bags used in packing at smaller shops. Most of these bags are unmarked. Even if NEMA found that some of them were above 30 microns, it is virtually impossible to say which factory manufactures which. In other words, NEMA cannot scrutinize each batch. That is why it favours a blanket ban on polythene shopping bags of below 30 microns.
But Nabatanzi says it is also wrong for the government authorities to focus on local manufacturers when up to 80% of polythene shopping bags used in the country is imported from Kenya.
“Like it or not, kaveera is a hot cake (and) even if our members are clamped down, there are many others producing kaveera ‘underground’ in homes and remember 80% of the kaveera comes from outside Uganda through smuggling,” she says.
Since it started in mid-April this year, critics of NEMA say it rushed into taking action following the refusal by Parliament’s Budget Committee in March to approve the agency’s budget allocations for the 2015/16 financial year unless they implemented provisions of the July 2009 Finance Act that prohibited the manufacture or importation and distribution of plastic bags below 30 microns.
Whatever the reason, Gerald Musoke Sawula, the NEMA deputy executive director told The Independenton June 22 that NEMA would not relent on the polythene bag ban. But he quickly added that the ban would only work when manufacturers stop producing and buyers stop buying.
“Kaveera has been with Uganda for the last 25 years and therefore, implementing the ban is not going to take months; it could take years.”
Beatrice Anywar Atim, the shadow minister for water and environment and a member of the committee on natural resources in Parliament supports NEMA. She told The Independenton June 22 that the kaveera manufacturers cannot keep asking for time because they have nothing to show from the grace period they got last time. “They have done nothing,” she says, “It’s just greed.”
Anywar says the kaveera ban has since 2009 been frustrated by some cabinet ministers ‘owing to conflict of interest.’
Dr. Francis Epetait, the MP for Ngora County and Committee member on Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries told The Independent that many Ugandans are suffering from throat cancer because of eating food cooked in kaveera. He said kaveera releases cancer-causing substances into the food.
“It is annoying and frustrating to see the government flip-flop on the kaveera issue,” he said, “Those lifting the ban on kaveera, deep in their mind know that kaveera is choking our soils; it is killing animals and clogging the drainage system. In the rural areas, people are misusing kaveera.”
In addition, when kaveera is burnt in the open, especially under low temperatures, it creates dioxin-like poisonous materials which cause cancer, skin diseases, endocrinal damage, hormone disruption; hypertension and human fertility. He said NEMA needs to be given credit and support instead of being frustrated by the government.
On the issue of people losing jobs because of the ban, Epetait says people should not get jobs at the expense of other people’s health. “What percentage of recycling is going on compared to the volumes being put out in the environment?”
Asked about what she thinks about the ban on kaveera by NEMA, Nabatanzi says the only problem UPMRA has with NEMA is that they do not come out clearly to say the gauge of the kaveera that they have banned.
“We also agree that it is dangerous to the environment but it is also important to manage it,” she says, adding that she is not sure if the manufacturers increased the gauge of the kaveera to even 100 microns that would mean that Uganda has finally found a solution for kaveera.
“The money NEMA has used to enforce the ban could have been used to sensitize people on how to use kaveera better; it is not the manufacturers who litter; it is the users who do so.”
“Ugandans need to be educated on how to deal with solid waste; they should learn how to sort the waste.” “If kaveera was, for instance, being sorted well and stockpiled, our companies would buy this assorted kaveera at competitive prices,” she said.
Nabatanzi says, of the 30 registered polythene manufacturers, 20 have recycling sections manufacturing products such as plastic pipes, plastic tanks, plastic sandals and plastic bins. These, she says, recycle over 15million kilogrammes of kaveera every month but that is because they are operating at 40% capacity. These 30 firms have invested close to Shs 77 billion ($25m) over the last five years and now directly employ over 3000 workers although at the moment some of the workers have been sent away because of the current ban. Nabatanzi says if the ban goes ahead and UPMRA members go out of business, then the government should brace itself for a long battle with the manufacturers.
“The government will have to compensate the manufacturers because it is the government which told them to come and invest here.”
Kaveera the hot cake
Information on how much kaveera is produced, used and dumped in Ugandan environment is scanty but according to NEMA, close to 40 million kilogrammes of polythene bag waste is released into the environment and most of it accumulates in the soil each year within the country.
On the other hand, UPMRA say they are still compiling information regarding how much kaveera is produced in the country every year. But their estimates point to 80% of lightweight polythene shopping bags used in the country being imported from Kenya. URA disagrees. James Kisale, a URA official in charge of enforcement told The Independenton June 25 that it is wrong for UPMRA to give the impression that smuggling contributes the biggest percentage of kaveera in Uganda.
He, for instance, says in the whole of 2014, URA impounded about 14,000 kilogrammes of kaveera entering Uganda from Kenya. He added that as far as this year is concerned, URA has so far impounded between 6,000—8,000 kilogrammes.
Kisale wondered if indeed Kenya was contributing up to 80% of the available kaveera in the country, then why would the local manufacturers and recyclers be making noise to ensure that the ban is lifted.
NEMA and other environmental officials also insist manufacturers should consider the millions of farming-related jobs that thrive when the soils are not damaged by kaveera.
Anywar said when her committee recently did a cost benefit analysis on the kaveera ban; they found that most of the production lines handling kaveera production hardly employ a handful of workers. This, she says, means that the recycling plants cannot go out of business because of the ban since they are engaged into producing other products for the market.
Irene Ssekyana, the national coordinator at Greenwatch, a local NGO that promotes public participation in sustainable use and management of the environment told The Independenton June 26 that manufacturers have been promising the country since 2008 on a strategy that would ensure that kaveera is well managed within the country. “They promised to set up collecting centres where kaveera users would dump their plastic waste and make it easier for recyclers to pick it. They brought in machinery to engage in recycling but also they have continued manufacturing the banned gauge of polythene carrier bags,” she said.
Ssekyana says this is just a ploy to buy public sympathy, adding that the lobbyists are also fronting their selfish business interests.
In 2002, Greenwatch brought a case before the High Court in Kampala arguing that the rampant and uncontrolled use of polythene bags poses a danger to Uganda’s environment and therefore violates the rights of Ugandans to a clean and healthy environment.
Greenwatch sought a court injunction directing the government to restore the environment to the state it was in before plastic pollution. Greenwatch also sought an order directing the importers, manufacturers, distributors of plastics to pay for the costs of the environmental restoration.
A decade later, the High Court ruled that indeed plastic bags are a danger to Ugandans and therefore the government needs to pass a law against them “as a matter of urgency.”
Going forward, Greenwatch has formed a loose platform of about 10 environmental local NGOs to buttress NEMA’s implementation of the ban. She says civil society agencies are going to rally the public to ensure that the ban is implemented.
“NEMA needs a lot of support at the moment because although they are trying their best, they are also being pulled and torn from all sorts of directions.”
“We commend NEMA with the way they have taken on the issue. We shall support them all the way and we shall see the best way to engage the citizens and take the fight forward.” Ssekyana added that one other option is suing the manufacturers or supermarkets that continue defying the ban. “We will identify one and sue them as an example to the rest,” she said.
She added that if investors want to blackmail the government using jobs and investment, they can go ahead and do so but Uganda is not going to have investors coming here to destroy the environment and refuse to replenish it.
Meanwhile Anywar says she also intends to mobilize Ugandans just like she did during the Mabira Campaign in 2007 to shun supermarkets that will continue using kaveera.
According to the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, around the world, about one trillion single-use plastic bags are distributed every year and as a result clog landfills, block drainage channels and waterways as well as choke animals, besides blemishing the natural landscape.
Many countries have responded to the kaveera menace by implementing bans or fees. The Earth Policy Institute argues that Denmark’s 1993 plastic shopping bag policy has probably been one of the most successful around the world.
The regulation affected plastic bag makers by asking them to pay a tax based on the bag’s weight but stores were allowed to pass the cost onto consumers either in bag charges or absorbed into the prices of other items. The effect of the system saw an impressive 60% drop in plastic bag usage in the country.