Banning Plastic Bags in Bor

An all too familiar sight
An all too familiar sight

As increasing numbers of South Sudanese move into our major population centres, introducing effective municipal waste management policies has become more important than ever before.

Bangladesh was the first nation to outlaw plastic bags in 2002. There’s little doubt or controversy about the negative impact that plastic bags can have when not properly disposed. Experts estimate that plastic bags can hang around for up to 1,000 years without breaking down. But the eyesore of a sea of plastic bags strewn throughout the roads and communal spaces of a community isn’t the biggest issue.

Dangerous cocktail

The cocktail of chemicals released by plastic bags can render soil infertile. The bags themselves can also block water ways causing them to stagnate and become breeding grounds for mosquitos and other water borne diseases. Chlorinated plastic bags are especially harmful as they release dangerous chemicals into the soil which seep into groundwater and other water sources. They can cause serious damage to animals that drink the water, including humans who also use these water sources.

Wildlife and domesticated animals often mistake plastic bags for food (especially those with food residue in them) and can end up either choking to death or slowly die from starvation and infection as the plastic bags they’ve eaten block their intestines and prevent them from digesting food.

Taking out the trash

Just ask the frustrated residents of Makuach payam who recently demanded that the Municipal Council of Bor clear up the growing mess around their homes or move the waste disposal ground somewhere far away from their community. The council responded by prohibiting the use of plastic bags within the municipality. Authorities have already started to turn back trucks found to be transporting plastic bags to the city. A new law has been introduced that will enable authorities to levy a harsh 500 SSP fine on anyone who is found to be using plastic bags. And residents have been advised to dispose of any bags they might have in case they fall foul of the new law.

The Municipal Council of Bor is not alone in its actions. For over a decade, there has been a growing, but uncoordinated, movement against the use of plastic bags throughout Africa. This campaign has been spearheaded by governments increasingly anxious about the environmental impact of uncontrolled waste in their burgeoning cities. In part, due to their highly visible and all pervasive presence, the plastic bag has been a chief target.

“People think that once you get rid of plastic bags it’s going to solve all our littering problems. But plastic bags are just the tip of the iceberg. They make up a very small part of the huge amount of material we throw away.” – Neil Verlander, Friends of the Earth.

Countries throughout the continent have introduced a varied mix of measures with equally varying levels of success. Some have added punitive levies against plastic bags so as to incentivise citizens away from their usage. Others have taken a more proactive approach by imposing restrictions on the thinnest of plastic bags (i.e. the types that can be most easily carried away by the wind) so as not to deprive their citizens entirely whilst tackling the most polluting category of plastic bags. Others have been bolder still and completely banned the use of plastic bags within their territory.

Never as easy as it seems

These campaigns have not been without their backlashes and setbacks. In Ivory Coast, where plastic bags are used extensively to purchase clean and potable water, demonstrations erupted when laws banning their use were introduced. Protesters gathered outside the prime minister’s office in Abidjan were eventually violently disperse by police using tear gas and batons. In Cameroon, a thriving illicit market in plastic bags has developed because of the governments blanket ban on their use, adding fuel to criminality and corruption in equal measure. In Tanzania, authorities have struggled to enforce a ban. Plastic bags continue to be sold and used openly in shops and markets, leading many to denounce the laws as toothless. And in South Africa, the levy placed against plastic bags has been so low as to have no appreciable impact on usage.

Despite these challenges, the steps taken by the Municipal Council of Bor in response to the complaints of their constituents makes for a welcome start. It remains to be seen whether the ban will be enforced or will even be enforceable, given that no credible alternative to plastic bags is immediately available to the public in the quantities required.  Citizens must be willing to support the municipal authority in making this initiative a success.  It also remains to be seen whether a comprehensive waste management programme will be implemented to address other types of waste, such as plastic bottles, aluminium cans and food waste.