The Debate on Banning Plastic Bags in Africa

Africa, the continent with the least commitment to creating an environmental haven still hangs with an ongoing debate on plastic bags. This running debate circles around whether or not to ban plastics on the entire continent. For this to happen, it would take 54 different governments to pass a plastic bag bill in each of the African countries they govern.

So far, 10 out of the 54 countries have banned plastic bags. Rwanda set the pace in 2008 with their plastic ban bill being the first on the continent. Kenya was the 10th African country to follow suit as they brought the world’s toughest plastic bag ban – Kenyans producing, selling or even using plastic bags will risk fines of $40,000 or imprisonment of up to four years.

“If we continue like this, by 2050, we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish”

Habib El-Habr, an expert on marine litter working with the UN environment programme in Kenya warned with an attempt to convince all other African countries to follow his country’s footsteps.

So far Kenya, Rwanda, Mauritania, Cameroon, Guinea Bissau, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Mali, and Malawi fully stand for using paper bags.

However, it’s still unclear what the other 44 other nations stand for entirely. The concerns that come with fully implementing the use of Paper bags in African Countries are numerous. They range from illegal trade in black market bags, reduced sales, lack of support from businesses, all right to deforestation activities caused by manufacturing paper bags.

However are these and other reasons that stand to justify the use of plastic bans also worthy back the scourge of plastic pollution in Africa?

Rwanda’s Minister of Natural Resources, Vincent Biruta, who sides with the view on banning plastics made a strong statement:

“My government took the decision for litter, pollution of water bodies, and pollution of soil. That decision was taken, it has created challenges in terms of packaging but it has also created opportunities”

Regardless of his views, the debate still stands strong.

Here’s a look at the factors considered in regards to plastic bag and paper bag use in African countries.

More Convenient

If there was a fully and efficiently enforced set ban on plastic, it would take a while to factor easy access to already existing plastics.

Paper bags generally hold more products per bag even as high as 50 percent to 400 percent more, depending on how they are packed. This is simply because paper bags are sturdier thus they have the capability to hold more volume when compared.

However, the build of plastic bags allows for multiple to be handheld. A number of products can be held with the more plastic bags. Unfortunately for paper bags, their structure prevents multiple to be held at the same.

More Eco-friendly in Production

Where does paper come from? – Trees, lots and lot trees. That’s a lot of deforestation if a nation is focused on being “environmentally” friendly.  But that’s not all that goes into paper bag production that affects the environment. Actually, the entire process of getting that paper bag to a grocery store usually has a huge toll on the planet.

The entire process starts with ‘clear cutting’ which is very detrimental to natural habitats. The process also contributes to ecological damage in its fair share.

Next process involves a whole lot of machinery to clear logs from the old forest. This is done with the use of logging trucks and in some instances helicopters when the area is quite inaccessible. The machines that are used require a tremendous amount of fossil fuel to operate thus, the environment is affected indirectly.

Whenever this process is done unsustainably, logging even small areas tend to create a  large impact on the entire ecological chain in its surrounding areas.

Plastic Bag Production Process:

Usually, plastic bags are typically made from oil, a non-renewable resource. Considering plastics are a by-product of the oil refining process with about 4% of oil production worldwide.

Electricity is the biggest energy input to the production process, with a great number of producers relying on coal-burning power plants. Considering it needs enough power to heat up to about 750 degrees Fahrenheit, where there is a separation of its various components and molded into polymers.

The entire process leads to using one of the five types of polymers (polyethylene) in its low-density form – LDPE. LDPE is also known as #4 plastic.

More Eco-friendly Post-usage

Trees are renewable resources however when the production rate is high, it gets hard to keep replanting rates up to par with the felling of trees.

Plastic bags, on the other hand, are made from polyethylene, which is made from petroleum. Petroleum is a nonrenewable resource. Even though plastic bags take 5-10 years to decompose, 2000 plastic bags would weigh 30 pounds. For paper bags which take about a month to decompose, the same quantity of 2,000 paper bags weighs more – 280 pounds.

It gets even hard to choose when research estimates that there’s a growing percentage of recycling (currently at 20%) occurring for plastics worldwide.

Then, to go in favor of plastic bags – the issue of biodegradable plastic bags pop up!

What are Biodegradable plastic bags?

These are plastic made from biopolymers like Polylactide (PLA) and Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) which are completely biodegradable in compost. They are entirely not made from petroleum products but are usually derived from food sources. Corn is currently the primary food stock for bioplastics.

To truly consider which of these would be more favorable, the location has to be considered also. The positives and negatives have to be evaluated accordingly to see which would actually be befitting for each African country. It would be outright wrong for countries to follow the 10 countries that have passed the plastic ban without actually analyzing how it can more beneficial.

Depending on your African Country, which would be more befitting for use – Plastic or Paper Bags?

About the Author

Manny Obeng is a Ghanaian raised writer with high hopes that his written work would serve its quota in making a world a better place, especially in Africa. With his love for creating written content, he regularly writes when he’s not working with his team – Team Exhort on the best place to post job ads Ghana and Africa

Salman Zafar

Salman Zafar is the Founder of Cleantech Solutions, and an internationally-acclaimed blogger, journalist, consultant, advisor and ecopreneur. His areas of expertise includes waste management, renewable energy, waste-to-energy, environment protection, resource conservation and sustainable development.
Salman is a prolific environmental writer, and has authored more than 300 articles in reputed journals, magazines and websites. He is proactively engaged in creating mass awareness on renewable energy, waste management, sustainability and conservation all over the world.
Salman can be reached on salman@cleantechloops.com.

2 thoughts on “The Debate on Banning Plastic Bags in Africa

  1. Thank you, Manny Obeng for addressing this issue. Please consider the following:

    1. All plastic is DEGRADABLE, even traditional plastic, but just because it can be broken down into tiny fragments or powder does not mean the materials will ever return to nature. Petroleum and gas derived plastic bags DO NOT decompose.

    2. The plastic bags we use in our everyday life take 10 to 1,000 years to decompose, not 5 to 10 years.

    3. In 2010, researchers determined that production of Polylactide (PLA) bioplastics from corn resulted in greater amounts of pollutants, due to the fertilizers and pesticides used in growing the crops and the chemical processing needed to turn organic material into plastic. Bioplastics also contributed more to ozone depletion than the traditional plastics and required extensive land use.

    4. The land required for producing Polylactide (PLA) bioplastics competes with food production because the crops that produce this type of bioplastics can also be used to feed people.

    5. PLA plastic
    – Will not decompose unless it is placed in a commercial compost where it reaches 140 degrees for ten consecutive days.
    – If dropped in the Ocean, a landfill, or backyard compost, there’s no evidence to suggest that PLA will biodegrade at all.
    – Is not recyclable.

    I trust that Africa will transition directly away from both paper and fossil derived bags and look into using Organic Compound Plastics (OCPs).

    OCPs:
    – Harmlessly decompose anywhere microbes are present – such as in the wilderness, the Ocean, lakes and streams, backyard soil and even in anaerobic landfills.
    – Are as recyclable as all standard petroleum plastics.
    – Are shelf stable, meaning they won’t degrade on a store shelf or in someone’s pantry, they only biodegrade in environments rich in microbes, like soil or water.
    – Are cost effective – close to the same price as traditional packaging.

Your Thoughts