Plastic Bag Free July

End Plastic Pollution, Uganda

By Zamawela Shamase & Merrisa Naidoo

“It’s all around us, in our homes, offices, social gatherings – you can’t help but notice the presence of plastic bags everywhere. The #BagIsStillHere in Africa, but it is not here to stay.” Weyinmi Okotie | GAIA Nigeria | Interview on Instagram | 25 July 2022.

Single-use plastic (SUP) bags represents one of the key contributing sources to plastic pollution that was initially intended for storage to make life easy and convenient for all, but has come at a heavy cost to to the environment and livelihoods of people through unsightly litter, threats to wildlife and livestock and risks posed to public health. This is a stark reality even for Africa – a leader in plastic bag policies – that has made incredible strides in the fight against plastic by championing strong enforcement and bans to stop the production and importation of single-use plastic.

With this in mind, this Plastic Free July month, GAIA Africa, along with the support of our members, launched the #BagIsStillHere campaign. This campaign sought to not only pay homage to and foster appreciation for existing plastic bag laws & policies in Africa but also to highlight the challenges and threats that hinder and undermine Africa’s progress on plastic policies and bans; and drew attention to members’ ongoing efforts and campaigns on single-use plastics.

Each week, the campaign highlighted the plastic bag laws and policies of a specific subregion in Africa.

Overview of Existing Plastic Bag Laws and Policies, Challenges and Future Recommendations in Africa:

East Africa has set the gold standard for single-use plastic bag laws and policies on the continent and globally, with 17 of the 18 East African countries passing a law banning plastic bags and have implemented it or intend on implementation, making East Africa environmental leaders at the forefront of plastic bag legislation. However, a lack of regional cooperation and regional instruments to support the efforts to stop illicit trade of plastic across all borders as well as limited availability of affordable alternatives to plastic bags and plastic packaging and the desire for convenience undermines the plastic bag legislation in East Africa. Ways around this would be for East Africa to develop and harmonise regional laws and enhance regional cooperation, source more sustainable packaging alternatives and innovative ways to redesign that are subsidised and increase awareness by educating the public on the implications of continued use of single-use plastic bags on human health and the environment at large.

In Southern Africa, interventions on plastic bag reduction policies vary in stages of implementation with limited evidence of their enforcement or effectiveness. These policies are challenged by the influential power of the plastics industry; top-down policy development approaches that pay little to no heed to consulting civil society and all stakeholders, coupled by a lack of national awareness-raising campaigns and internal political disagreements that are associated with plastic bag related policies. There is a need to, therefore, establish effective multi-faceted engagement strategies with all stakeholders alike, from civil society to plastic manufacturers, at the onset of policy development. This will lead to policies that are more in tune with the reality of each country. Additionally, developing sustainable national campaigns that lobby buy-in from multiple stakeholders and lead to long-term change and strengthening the bodies responsible for enforcing and implementing the bans against any undue political pressures should be a priority.

Many countries in West Africa have welcomed legislative SUP bans, especially for plastic bags, which marks their commitment to dealing with SUP pollution. The main drivers of plastic bag bans in West Africa have been for environmental protection, sanitation, livestock protection and farmer’s livelihoods and maintaining the tourism industry’s standards. However, these bans have been characterised by poor enforcement regimes, which has resulted in a reduced desired impact across the West African sub-region.

In West Africa, there is a strong dependence on single-use plastic bags to serve food to clients by food vendors and hawkers and a lack of plans and provisions for reusable alternatives. Bans are also characterised by very short lag times between announcement and implementation, often in the same year the ban was announced. This gives businesses and consumers very little time to adjust their behaviour and can open up to black market use and distribution of plastic bags and other SUPs. The plastic manufacturing sector also fears potential job losses, leading to bans in certain West African countries being revoked.

Governments should, therefore, identify, incentivise and make provisions for alternative delivery systems at prices that are affordable to the populace. This will mainstream the transition from SUPs to reusable alternatives and refillable systems. Ample time should be given to policies on plastic bags and other SUPs to allow the players in the plastic value chain and the public to adjust appropriately. This will prevent opposition to bans that could jeopardise its success. Subsidies, revolving funds and loans should be provided that assist firms to transit from SUPs to reusable alternatives. This will prevent job loss and opposition to policies that reduce SUPs and ensure a just transition.

North Africa was unfortunately home to the second highest per capita consumer of plastic bags in 2015, which has motivated the sub-region to crack down on plastic and attain greener policies. In North Africa, retailers are afraid of losing clientele if they stop distributing plastic bags, which causes plastic bags to reappear in markets and in small shops despite bans progressively. False alternatives (such as non-woven bags that are made of 100 percent plastic, using a polypropylene fabric, which are often masked as “fabric bags” which have become as disposable as previous bags) are promoted which strongly limits the potential of reducing plastic pollution. Monitoring systems are also inconsistent.

It is recommended that efforts are concentrated to check and dis-incentivise the informal sector producing and distributing plastic bags to the marketplace. False alternatives should also be debunked, and the use of effective and creative alternatives should be promoted instead of continuing to subsidise alternatives that are, for the most part, still made out of plastic. Lastly, stricter monitoring indicators by law enforcers should be set up, such as routine checks to educate users and illegal traders about the negative impacts of plastic bags, conduct more foot patrols, develop strong connections and continually improve social networks in communities where there are no bonds and share policies, information, investigative results, and other important information about legislation.

Member Activity during Plastic Free July:

Our members played their part during #PlasticFreeJuly. We have created videos with members during the month talking about plastic bags. East Africa, Southern Africa, West Africa: Ghana, West Africa: Nigeria , North Africa.

Our East African members ran a petition to ban single-use plastic bags. We also promoted Break Free From Plastic’s virtual toxic tour with the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA). Centre For Earth Works (CFEW) in Nigeria has also been running a campaign on #PlasticFreeJuly throughout the month. And End Plastic Pollution visited a school and created awareness through their #PlasticFreeCampus program.

Now that Plastic Free July has drawn to a close, there is still much work to do to realise the vision of a #SUPfree Africa!

“We should not lose momentum in our fight against plastic pollution and continue to be strong in our advocacy efforts whilst remembering that plastic pollution is a systemic problem that can only be solved with systemic solutions to ultimately bring about systemic change and that starts with reducing the amount of plastic that is produced and that enters the markets.” – Ana Rocha | Nipe Fagio | Live Chat on Instagram | 04 July 2022