Rwanda clamping down on plastic bag smuggling — ‘they’re as bad as drugs’
GISENYI, Rwanda — They are sometimes tucked into bras, hidden in underwear or coiled tightly around a smuggler’s arms.
They’re not narcotics or even the illegally mined gold and diamonds that frequently make it across the border into Rwanda. But they are, at least in the eyes of Egide Mberabagabo, a border guard, every bit as nefarious.
The offending contraband? Plastic bags.
“They’re as bad as drugs,” said Mberabagabo, one of a dozen border officials whose job is to catch smugglers and dispose of the illicit plastic he finds.
Here in Rwanda, it is illegal to import, produce, use or sell plastic bags and plastic packaging except within specific industries like hospitals and pharmaceuticals. The nation is one of more than 40 around the world that have banned, restricted or taxed the use of plastic bags, including China, France and Italy. Zero tolerance
But Rwanda’s approach is on another level. Traffickers caught carrying illegal plastic are liable to be fined, jailed or forced to make public confessions.
Smugglers can receive up to six months in jail. The executives of companies that keep or make illegal plastic bags can be imprisoned for up to a year, officials say.
Plastic bags, which take hundreds of years to degrade, are a major global issue, blamed for clogging oceans and killing marine life. Last month, Kenya passed a rule that will punish anyone making, selling or importing plastic bags with as much as four years in jail or a $19,000 fine.
In Rwanda, the authorities say the bags contribute to flooding and prevent crops from growing because rainwater can’t penetrate the soil when it is littered with plastic.
The nation’s zero-tolerance policy toward plastic bags appears to be paying off: Streets in the capital, Kigali, and elsewhere across this hilly, densely populated country are virtually spotless. People are regularly seen on the sides of roads sweeping up rubbish, and citizens are required once a month to partake in a giant neighborhood cleaning effort, including the president.
Plastic-bag vigilantes are everywhere, from airports to villages, and these informants tip off the authorities about suspected sales or use of plastic.
Enforcing the ban, which was first adopted in 2008, involves hundreds of rules that are tricky to follow, to say the least.
Imports generally have their plastic packaging removed at customs, officials say, unless doing so would damage the goods. In that case, stores are required to remove the packaging before handing the merchandise to customers.
Food wrapped in cellophane is allowed only in hotels and only if it does not leave the premises.
Biodegradable bags are allowed only for frozen meat and fish, not for other items like fruit and vegetables because such bags still take as long as 24 months to decompose, the government says.
Potato chips and other foods packed in plastic are allowed only if the companies making them are approved by the government — after showing a detailed business plan that includes how they plan to collect and recycle their bags. Businesses hurt
Two officials from Rwanda’s Environment Management Authority recently went on a spontaneous inspection of shops in Kigali, posing as customers. By the end of the hour, they had already padlocked three stores and fined the owners a few hundred dollars each for selling bread wrapped in cellophane, using biodegradable bags for vegetables and cookies, or selling flour packaged in plastic instead of paper.
“This is very bad,” said Martine Uwera, one of the inspectors, towering over a store employee and jabbing her finger at a loaf of bread wrapped in plastic.
“Forgive us,” the worker pleaded. “We didn’t know, we didn’t know.” A colleague muttered, “It’s not fair,” under her breath.
The prohibited loaves of bread were swept off the shelves into a basket that the officials said would be distributed to hospitals, charities and orphanages. The store was closed temporarily until the fine was paid and the owner signed an apology letter.
Two stores in the vicinity suffered a similar fate, and one had it particularly bad: It was fined and lost revenue worth $650, a sizable amount here. Its owner, Emile Ndoli, a commercial baker, tried to negotiate with the inspectors, and an argument erupted. Bread wrapped in paper, he said, went bad faster than bread wrapped in plastic.
“What Rwanda is doing is 100 percent correct,” he said, stealing a glance at the inspectors who stood by, listening carefully. “But I’m also a businessman, and I want a permanent solution, which won’t involve losing money.”
A woman hides packets of plastic bags in her clothing as she prepares to smuggle them into Rwanda recently in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. Traffickers caught carrying the illegal plastic into Rwanda are liable to be fined, jailed or forced to make public confessions.