Plastic pollution soaring in face of govt complacency

Residents gather plastic bottles at a collection hub  at Lambu Fish Landig Site in Masaka City on  August 4, 2021. PHOTO / FILE

What you need to know:

  • This breakdown, according to a lecturer at Makerere University College of Natural Sciences who is leading a research project on plastic pollution, happens after prolonged exposure of the plastic or polythene to high or low temperatures, and sunshine.
  • Dr Christine Nagawa has also warned that some people are exposed to the toxins through the fumes from the burning of plastics.

The poor regulation by the government, strong consumer demand and market trends have caused an astronomical increase in the use of plastics in the country amid evident dangers to human health and the environment, experts have warned.

Chemicals such as styrene and benzene which are known to cause cancer or disrupt fertility are used to manufacture plastic. These chemicals often leak from the plastic. The container also continually breaks down into toxic microplastics, which end up in the juice, soda, tea or even food we consume.

This breakdown, according to a lecturer at Makerere University College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences who is leading a research project on plastic pollution, happens after prolonged exposure of the plastic or polythene to high or low temperatures, and sunshine. Dr Christine Nagawa has also warned that some people are exposed to the toxins through the fumes from the burning of plastics.

“Some people are keeping their sodas in the sunshine in the plastic bottle,” she noted, adding, “I advise you not to take that soda. Even when you are taking your water, wait for the water to cool, then you can put it in your plastic cup. If you want it hot, then you can use your ceramic cup where we are sure that we don’t have these microplastics,” Dr Nagawa said.

“For the fish, if they ingest micro-plastic, which is polluting the water, it has been shown to block their gut (intestines), which will eventually lead to the death of the fish. Lake water is the only available source for people living near the lakes if they are not connected to the National Water and Sewerage Corporation line,” she added.

Statistics from the taxman show that Uganda annually imports around 8.7 million tonnes of plastics in different forms—some for further manufacture and others as finished products. According to the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), of the finished products—which are majorly used in packaging or as carrier bags—660,000 end up as wastes every day.

A 2017 report by Roland Geyer of the University of California in America indicates that more than 79 percent of the waste generated is dumped into the environment or landfills. It further reveals that 12 percent is incinerated (burnt appropriately), with only nine percent is recycled due to poor waste management strategies.

Plastic pollution

Mr Moses Kabangi, the assistant commissioner for environmental health services at the Ministry of Health, says the complexities of plastic pollution in emerging cities and towns keeps growing by the day.

“Communities just throw these materials anywhere. So the plastic waste ends up in drainage systems, which have been constructed for the transportation of wastewater. They cause blockages and you find wastewater spilling all over and the places are really stinking,” he told Sunday Monitor.

“Then the plastics, most of them end up in water systems and they choke the aquatic life. If you go to Lake Victoria, you will see the upper area has been greatly degraded because there are a lot of plastics there. The water there is stinking and it shows you that there is contamination,” he added.

Mr Kabangi said some people pick and recycle plastic which were used to carry dangerous materials.

The country is already having issues of land degradation where plastic or polythene is dumped because they take hundreds of years to decompose unlike the alternatives like paper bags.

Mr Frank Muramuzi, the executive director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), has urged the government to restrict the importation of plastics. He has for some time now told the government to popularise paper bags that can easily decompose instead of polythene bags.

“Government should also put resources into having some of these plastics recycled and we should also embrace reusable plastics. People are not using paper bags because of Nema and other partners of the government. They don’t enforce,” he noted.

“They are the ones allowing licensing the production and importation of more and more polythene bags. People had started using the paper bags, but there is now a lot of relaxation,” he added.

The National Environment Act, 2019, under section 76 (1), prohibits the importation, export, local manufacture, use or reuse of categories of plastic carrier bags or plastic products made of polymers of polyethene or polypropylene below 30 microns.

Concerted effort

Mr David Livingstone Ebiru, the executive director of the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), said there is now a renewed commitment to enforcing a ban through joint operations. He further revealed that Nema and UNBS have agreed to join forces.

“Although there is a move towards a total ban of the plastic materials, especially the single-use plastics and the kaveras, our focus right now is what the standards as it is today provide for,” he said.

Dr Barirega Akankwasah, the executive director of Nema, said their long-term view—given the impeccable evidence that plastics are extremely harmful to our ecosystem, our agriculture, drainage and water quality—“is that we must start the journey to reduce manufacture and use of plastics.”

Uganda is currently grappling with a spike in cancer cases and other diseases linked to pollution from plastics and other sources.

“There is an argument that paper bags will lead to depletion of trees, which is also a valid argument,” Dr Akankwasah conceded, but hastened to add: “We must all know that it is dangerous to dispose of plastics randomly. On top of advising on where to put plastics, we must also impart knowledge.”

Dr Akankwasah said it is an offence, punishable by up to seven years in jail, to possess, transport, import or trade plastics of 30 microns and below.

Kaveera here to stay?

Dr Sam Mayanja, the junior Lands minister, however told Sunday Monitor that Uganda cannot ban polythene bags because there is no viable alternative.

“Polythene bags are produced everywhere, they are everywhere in the world. This is the thing in use today. The right thing is not to ban polythene bags, but find out how to handle them after use,” he reasoned, adding, “Get the polythene bags and recycle them into another product. If you ban them in Uganda, you will cross to Kenya and find them.”

Mr Sam Atul, the Mayor of Lira City, said the government is failing their agenda on addressing plastic bags (kaveera) pollution, which is one the hardest to manage.

“When the city is growing and attracting many people, the challenges of waste management are real. But we need the government to come clear on helping us to manage polythene bags. The State Minister of Environment [Ms Beatrice Anywar] has come out to say that we are going to have a ban on kaveera but action has not yet been taken. This still remains a challenge for us as a city and the whole country,” he said.

Ms Florence Namayanja, the Masaka City mayor, said while the biggest source of waste is from agricultural commodities sold in the city, “plastics such as the bottles and kaveera are the hardest to handle.” She added: “Government has made a pronouncement on the ban and there is a law banning kavera. Kaveera comes from known manufacturing sites and if they (the government) do not deal with it from the source, it becomes a big problem for us and the environment because we are at the receiving end.”

Monitor Publications  endeavours to get everything it publishes correct. When mistakes are made, we want to know, and a correction will be published as soon as possible. Please notify us of any needed correction at [email protected], or by writing to the Editor, Plot 29-36, 8th Street Industrial Area, Namuwongo, P.O. Box 12141, Kampala-Uganda, or by calling the News Editor at 0312301100. Thank you.