By Jean-Pierre Afadhali
Environmental authorities are hoping to considerably reduce plastic pollution two years after legislation banning single-use plastic items and plastic-carry bags largely responsible for plastic pollution was enacted. Plastic reductions will likely come from the expiration of the grace period for local manufacturers and importers to venture into alternative materials in addition to an ambitious plastic waste management project that was recently unveiled.
According to officials, single-use plastics and plastic-carry bags, the global pollutants that clog water drainage systems, oceans and kill marine life, have contributed to flooding and low agricultural yield productivity in Rwanda, as they prevent water penetration into the soil and are a source of air pollution when burnt. This led to the total ban of polyethylene shopping bags in 2008 after law No. 27/2008, enacted on 10/09/2008, prohibited the manufacturing, importation, use, and sale of polyethylene bags.
On September 2nd, 2021, Rwanda joined Peru in proposing an international legally binding agreement to combat plastic waste. The draft will be discussed at the upcoming United Nations (UN) Environment Assembly scheduled for February 2021 in Nairobi, Kenya.
Despite a successful ban of polythene bags, other types of plastic waste, such as single-use plastic items, have continued to pose significant environmental harm as they can take up to 1,000 years to decompose according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). As a result, a law that bans the importation, manufacturing, sale, and use of single-use plastic products and plastic-carry bags was enacted in 2019 to complete the previous legislation and create a transitional period for local manufacturers to shift to alternative environment-friendly products. The grace period expired on August 10, ushering in a new era in the fight against plastic pollution.
While some manufacturers have called for an extension in the transitional period to venture into alternative materials, the director general of Rwanda Environment Management (REMA) Ms. Juliet Kabera said in an email interview that the deadline extension is not necessary. “No need for extension, the manufacturers can consider switching to environmentally friendly straws,” Kabera said, referring to NBG Ltd, a firm that manufactures plastic straws. The firm and other manufacturers wanted a three months’ extension period according to media reports.
However, Ms. Kabera acknowledged that she is only aware of NBG Ltd requesting a deadline extension.
During the grace period, the environmental authority gave special permission to manufacturers of goods that require plastic packaging, importers or manufacturers of home compostable single-use plastics, and users of single-use plastic items in exceptional cases where prohibited items were required.
NBG ltd stated in May that the extension would help them increase revenue and service the loan taken by the firm. The firm invested Rwf250 million (about USD 245,000) to start the factory four years ago and is now seeking Rwf 600 million (about USD 590,000) to invest in alternative items.
While authorities are pushing for the implementation of the ban on single-use plastics and plastic-carry bags, the lack of alternative materials and low recycling of plastic waste remain key challenges in sustaining the fight against plastic pollution. The Ministry of Environment and REMA has advised local manufacturers to invest more in the manufacturing of alternative items. “We have a ‘Green Fund’, but to date, no business has applied for funds in relation to alternative products manufacturing.” Ms. Kabera further said.
The most widely-used single-use plastic items in the country include cups, straws, coffee stirrers, beverage bottles, and packaging materials. In 2016, the food-processing industry faced a price increase of packaging materials from RWF 29.55 (USD 0.03) to RWF 118.20 (USD 0.12) after the ban was enforced. This paper reported that the firm Sosoma packed its products in aluminum bags, the cost of the final product increasing from RWF 236.40 (USD 0.24) to RWF 305.35 (USD 0.31) per unit. At Inyange Industries, the cost of packaging increased from RWF 59.10 (USD 0.06) to RWF 295.50 (USD 0.30). At Urwibutso, it increased from RWF 39.40 (USD 0.04) to RWF 177.30 (USD 0.18) and at Ruhango Cassava from RWF 98.50 (USD 0.10) to RWF 423.55 (USD 0.43).
In 2019, three factories were reported to have started the process of shifting to alternative materials made out of paper, bamboo, and others supported by the Ministry of Environment; however, some alternative products are not yet available on a large scale.
The key challenge to fight plastic pollution is the mindset; people now understand the role of single-use plastics in pollution and what they now need are alternative materials, noted Mr. Aphrodice Nshimiyimana, project officer for Global Initiative for Environment and Reconciliation (GER), a local organization. In its recent report on plastic pollution, GER stated:
Meanwhile, a new plastic waste management project was announced in July as a partnership between the private sector and REMA. Called the ‘Sustainable management of Single-Use Plastics’, the project is expected to play a key role in the effort to deal with the plastic pollution projected to reach 12 billion tons by 2050 by the 2018 UNEP if consumption patterns and waste management practices do not improve.
Recycling and re-use culture
The announced project will support the re-use of plastic items through the collection and recycling of plastic waste and will be financed with a sum of Rwf 690,924,600 (about USD 690,000) contributed by members of a private sector federation that deal with single-use plastic businesses, those who have received authorized exceptions.
In a phone interview, Mr. Theoneste Ntagengerwa – the project’s focal point at PSF – said that each local firm that imports products that are packaged in single-use plastic will contribute Rwf 90 per kg of imported products. This means that a company that imports one ton of plastics will pay Rwf 90,000 (USD 90). In five 5 years the amount expected to be collected is Rwf 690,924,600 (USD 690,000).
“We want to build a circular economy that is based on recycling and re-use of plastic materials,” explained Mr. Ntagengerwa. At the time of the interview the project had not yet begun, Mr. Ntagengerwa said without giving a time when “the tender for a company that will collect and recycle plastic waste will be published once the project starts”.
The plastic ban has affected local firms differently; some are trying to adapt to new regulations stipulated in the law that prohibits single-use plastics and subsequent measures.
Mr. Thierry Kalisa, manager of Urwibutso ltd, an agro-processing company, told The East African that they will keep importing plastic bottles as they have permission to do so and are ready to contribute to the announced fund, despite it slightly affecting the firm.
“Of course, the ban will impact our business but it will not be like if it was a total ban. The complete ban requires another investment for alternative products.” Mr. Kalisa said in a phone interview. The firm that imports plastic bottles for its beverages could invest in recycling in the future to cut costs, Kalisa said, adding that they buy other packaging plastic locally.
The Director General of REMA said that the most used single plastic product in the country is polyethylene, generally used in the packaging industry.
According to REMA, eight recycling companies in the country recycle used products, some of them dealing with plastic wastes. Such firms play a major role in fighting plastic pollution and promoting re-use culture, yet the process still requires huge investment due to the high cost of labor and recycling technologies.
Mr. Leon Nduwayezu, the founder of Agroplast ltd, a plastic recycling firm that makes agriculture tubing used in tree nurseries among other plastic items, maintains that recycling requires huge investment yet the margin is low. “Our profit margins are very low when we compare with our cost of production.” The firm buys plastic waste between Rwf150 (USD 0.15) and Rw300 (USD 0.30) per kilogram from 11 waste-collecting firms.
The firm that has the capacity to treat between 1 and 1,5 tons of waste per day is appealing for incentives that would boost waste collection and financing and thus boost recycling. “Policymakers should look at the value of our work on environment protection rather than its business side.” Said Mr. Nduwayezu “We have engaged relevant authorities by they often tell us that their budget is limited,” adding that if they have the means they could use the latest technologies.
Environment levy will be imposed
The 2019 law relating to the ban on single-use plastic stipulates an environmental levy that will be imposed on imported goods packaged in plastic materials or single-use products. However, the levy has not yet been executed despite the expiration of the grace period. Ms. Kabera told The East African that the law relating to the environmental levy is still under the approval process. “The draft law on the same is in advanced stages and should be passed in the near future,” further revealed the director of REMA in a written interview.
Among others, the levy could reduce the quantity of single-use plastics exported to Rwanda and is expected to curb unfair competition between local manufacturers who contribute to the single-used plastics fund and international firms that export to the Rwandan market. “The issue of unfair competition raises from the fact that if manufacturers contribute to the fund while importers pay nothing it will be an additional cost to production which may result in unfair competition by imported goods to the goods made in Rwanda.” Mr. Ntagengerwa, a key player in the project, explained.
According to UN Environment, the most common single-use plastics found in the environment are, in order of magnitude, cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags, and foam takeaway containers.
This story has been produced for InfoNile with support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation. Interactive timeline by Madison Erdall.