Rwanda clamp­ing down on plas­tic bag smug­gling — ‘they’re as bad as drugs’

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - WORLD - By Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura

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.”

Diana Zeynab Alhindawi / New York Times

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.

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