This month, Uganda bans plastic bags, outlawing their import, manufacture and use and joining a growing list of African countries seeking to sweep cities of this menace. Uganda’s ban follows similar moves in Kenya and in Tanzania, where even plastic drinks containers will soon be banished. Rwanda, also a member of the East African Community, has gone further – in 2005 the country banned any products made of very thin plastic below 100 microns. The thinner plastic found in plastic bags (under 30 microns) is particularly troublesome because it is easily blown around by the wind. The proliferation of plastic bags and plastic containers across the developing world has not only become an eyesore, it is also an environmental catastrophe that is poisoning the land.
In Uganda’s capital, Kampala, discarded plastic has combined with toxic waste management practices to make the problem worse. While Kampala has 30 companies dealing in solid waste management, the process is mired in corruption. Poor areas of the city receive no service because it is more profitable for the companies to target wealthy areas for the user fees they collect to remove rubbish.
Scavengers in the municipal dump of Kampala earn 50 Ugandan pence a day collecting plastic bags. Most plastic bags do not make it to the dump, ending up blown around the city by the wind, washed into drains and water courses. Worse, the rich soil around Uganda’s towns and villages is now covered in plastic bags. A new layer of polythene and contaminated soil has formed in many areas, with an impenetrable crust that stops rain from soaking through. It leaves water stagnating in pools gurgling with methane gas bubbles.
For entrepreneurs, tackling the mountains of plastic waste is an opportunity – as is providing a replacement once they are banned. A boon time is emerging for the market in recycled and reusable materials and biodegradable alternatives.
The So Afr-Eco Community Upliftment Project for Rural Women in South Africa is a common example. A project that proves money can be made from recycling discarded plastic bags into useful items. Based in the Obanjeni district in Kwazulunatal, it was founded by Jenny Kirkland, who was disgusted with the proliferation of plastic bags littering South Africa’s countryside. She decided to do something that would also hire rural women and give them an income. The plastic bags are cut into strips of twine and then woven together to make hats, bags, doormats and waistcoats. Run as a for-profit business, it now employs 132 families and exports products to 19 countries, including Australia, the USA, the UK, Canada, Sweden and Poland. South African schools are now provided with sun hats and companies order hats for use at conferences. The profits made from sales are significant by local standards. For example, the sale of one beach bag can feed a small family for two weeks, a hat feeds a family for a week, and a doormat for a month.
Anita Ahuja, president of the NGO Conserve, has set up a business making fashionable handbags, wallets and shopping bags from recycled plastic bags in New Delhi, India. Begun in 2003, the project collects plastic bags on the streets and keeps 60 women employed. The recycling process does not require additional dyes or inks and is non-toxic. The bags are sold in London, UK and will soon be sold in Italy by the Benetton clothing chain.
“We braided them and tried weaving them, but the plastic would come loose. Then we hit upon the idea of pressing them to make sheets,” Ahuja said.
But this issue can be more complex than it first seems. After South Africa banned plastic bags of less than 30 microns in 2003, many poor entrepreneurs have complained that it hit hard their making of hats, handbags, purses and scrubbing brushes from them – something that had become a good livelihood.
After the bags are banned, environmentalists say the best option is to use reusable bags made of materials that don’t harm the environment during production and don’t need to be discarded after use.
Alternatives to plastic bags include traditional African baskets or kiondos as they are known in Kenya. Made from sisal and sometimes with leather or wooden handles, the handmade bags support many local women (http://www.propoortourism-kenya.org/african_bags.htm).
In Kenya, entrepreneurs have also stepped in to offer alternatives to plastic and kiondos. Supermarkets and shops in the country distributed 11 million plastic shopping bags a year, so Joseph Ayuka of Greensphere Enterprises has begun to market cotton bags for their easy portability. “People don’t want to carry bulky bags to the supermarket”, he said.
- A Bangladesh case study on social entrepreneurs turning refuse into wealth: http://proxied.changemakers.net/journal/01may/index.cfm
- The Ethical Super Store has a wide range of recycled shopping bags and hand bags made to Fair Trade standards.
- A collective of women in the slums of Delhi, India sell fashionable recycled shopping bags online: http://www.theindiashop.co.uk/
- Hong Kong’s first enterprise to make and sell recycled bags: http://www.recyclebag.net/eng/
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