Kampala- After six years of hesitation, government seems resolved to effect the ban on polythene bags that are responsible for environmental degradation.
Government in 2009 announced a ban on kaveera below 30 microns but the implementation fell flat after several groups, especially manufacturers, lobbied for a grace period.
However, last Wednesday, the implementing agency, the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), launched the implementation of the ban, raiding major supermarkets in the city centre.
Consequently, several shopping centres have resorted to alternative packaging materials.
Nema spokesperson Naomi Karekaho said by yesterday, 10 tonnes of the polythene bags had been collected in the operation. She singled out Uchumi Supermarket as one among the many shops and supermarkets that voluntarily surrendered the carrier bags. Last Tuesday, Uchumi surrendered to Nema one tonne of polythene it had stocked.
The ban was, however, received with mixed signals in Cabinet, with some ministers seemingly harbouring diverse opinions on the ban.
When Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda issued a statement, promising to postpone the ban, the latest ban appeared would suffer another still birth.
However, the ministry of Environment has since appeared to have been given the discretion to implement the ban.
State minister for Environment Flavia Munaaba, in an interview with Daily Monitor on Wednesday, said as long as the law prohibits the use, importation and manufacture of plastics, the implementing agency - Nema - will not retreat in its endeavour to clear the country of the plastic bags.
“We have the law (banning the use of polythene). And these companies have been circumventing them and never minded about recycling. So Nema has to do its work,” Ms Munaaba said, adding that nobody will interfere with the environment watchdog’s role.
However, Nema has to deal with opposition to the ban from the ministry of Trade, with the latter seemingly more concerned about the jobs and money that could be lost once factories manufacturing the plastics go out of business.
In an interview yesterday, State minister for Industry James Mutende said: “This is not a total ban. And this is where I think Nema has not got it right.”
The ministry is particularly concerned with the nature of enforcement, saying it is being done indiscriminately yet it shouldn’t be that way. “Plastic is here to stay. What we need to do is to sensitise our people to use them properly and know that it can be recycled. I expect Nema to take the lead in this because it is the enforcement arm,” Mr Mutende said.
He also said Nema should be confiscating or imposing a ban on polythene bags that are below 30 microns because that is what is below the requirement and not any other plastic packaging.
What the law says
However, the 2010 Statute on the ban reads: “It is prohibited for a person to manufacture, import, sell, use, distribute or otherwise deal in plastic bags except plastic woven bags for the packaging and conveyance of goods and plastics and other exceptional uses specified in the schedule.”
Uganda Manufactures Association (UMA) records show nearly 80 local factories are involved in the plastic manufacturing business, with each employing more than 20 people. According to Mr Mutende, such investment needs to be protected rather than shut down.
According to dictionary.com, a micron is the millionth part of a metre.
However, Mr Julius Onen, the ministry of Trade permanent secretary, said Cabinet has since directed that the impasse be sorted out once and for all within one month.
“The Cabinet sat over this matter and directed that all stakeholders; ministry of Finance, Trade, Environment, Transport, Nema, the private sector leadership, among others, meet to discuss this issue and agree on the way forward. And this is the position at the moment,” Mr Onen said in an interview yesterday.
UMA executive director Ssebagala Kigozi said the ministries of Finance and Trade support the private sector proposals which include proper management and recycling of polythene bags and plastic materials.
However, Ms Munaaba accuses polythene bag manufacturers of being very slow embracing what they promised to do years ago.
In a meeting with plastic makers yesterday, UMA chairman Amos Nzeyi said manufacturers have agreed to do business while minding the environment and that they are producing polythene bags of 30 microns and above.
Mr Isaac Ntujju, the Nema senior environment inspector, told Daily Monitor yesterday that instead of polythene bags manufacturing companies lobbying “and stage-managing protests” against the ban, they should comply and invest in biodegradable products.
“There is no business that will close because these companies produce other products and actually employ more people without damaging the environment,” Mr Ntujju said.
Good news though for Nema is that the Finance ministry supports the ban.
In a statement issued yesterday, ministry spokesperson Jim Mugunga said: “The enforcement of the ban has no revenue implications to the Budget because we adequately prepared, provided and projected alternate sources for shortfalls, if any, that would relate to this particular source,” Mr Mugunga said.
He added: “We associate strongly with measures that are adopted to protect the environment and ensure better living conditions for more than 34 million Ugandans at large.”
Effect of kaveera
Government says polythene bags block drainage systems and degrade the soil.
About 39,600 tonnes of polythene waste is released into the environment and most of it accumulates in the soil each year. More than 80 per cent of Ugandans depend on agriculture, implying that degrading the soils negatively impacts the sector.
The kaveera has been responsible for blockage of drainage channels and sewers, causing floods and stagnation of water leading to increase in incidence of diseases such as malaria.
Once integrated in soil, it blocks the percolation of water, hence affecting soil fertility. It also kills domestic animals which ingest it while feeding.
Mr Moses Talibita from Uganda National Health Consumers Organisation yesterday claimed that majority of restaurants wrap food in polythene bags.
Mr Talibita said high temperature as a result of heating kaveera emits chemicals into the food which may cause diseases.
It is estimated that a polythene bag can take up to 400 years to decompose when they are improperly discarded.
On July 11, 2009, then Finance minister Syda Bbumba imposed a total ban on plastic bags.
An excise duty of 120 per cent was also imposed on other plastic materials and a moratorium of six months was given to the public as the transition period during which persons would find alternative packing materials that are environmentally friendly.
However, the ban stalled in what Nema publicist Naomi Karekaho attributes to poor coordination between government ministries.
Ms Munaaba says by now, the companies would be recycling plastics, a move that would minimise the impact of polythene bags on the environment. She said the manufactures choose to go into mass production despite knowing that the ban has been looming for the last six years.