The Sustainable Approach to Monrovia’s Plastic Bag Challenge
By: Too Edwin Freeman
The spectacle of a cityscape decked out in copious plastic waste, no doubt, conjures negative implications for tourism. The impact of clogged sewers and drainages on public health is likewise excruciatingly debilitating. It is therefore no surprise that Monrovia’s former acting City Mayor, who was on a crusade to prettify the city, once referred to the city’s overwhelming plastic scourge as a menace! Judging from her public declarations at the time, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Mayor Mary Broh’s core strategy for dealing with the problem was primarily focused on banning plastics!
Case in point, at a ceremony marking Earth Day celebrations in Monrovia a few years ago, then Mayor Broh was quoted by liberianobserver.com as saying: “I pledge to make Monrovia one of the cleanest cities in Africa and will soon stop the importation of the plastic materials coming into Liberia in the next few months.” In a blog (tlcafrica.com) aptly titled, “The Plastics Bag Challenge,” among other things, the mayor further indicated that she was contemplating a ban on the use of “thin, non-biodegradable plastic bags.” She referred to them as “…the ones that get caught in the trees and stuck in the sewers for years…” To bolster her case for banning the use of plastic bags, the mayor cited South Africa and Rwanda as two African countries in which similar initiatives have been successful.
One would be hard pressed to find any valid grounds for dissension with the former mayor’s ultimate goal – a clean, healthy Monrovia. However, her portrayal of the city’s circumstances of inconvenience (or dirty little secret) as “a real problem with plastics...” is ground enough for divergence of opinion on how best to fix the problem. What subsists in Monrovia is not a “plastics problem” per se, but a “product end-of-life” management problem. This distinction is worth the emphasis because contextual delineation of any problem is a necessary prerequisite for finding the appropriate solution. If one perceives the situation in Monrovia as a problem with plastics, then of course a ban on plastics is the perfect solution. However, if the city’s plastics scourge is viewed within the broader context of environmental stewardship, then the solution demands a more holistic approach to ensure that it is sustainable.
While it’s indeed convenient for proponents of a plastic bag ban to highlight the successes of South Africa and Rwanda to bolster their argument, an in-depth consideration of the full continuum of such initiatives across the continent is far more instructive if one is to be guided by the African experience. For the record many other African countries including Eritrea (2005), Kenya (2007), Uganda (2007), Tanzania (2006), Togo (2011) and even Somaliland (a breakaway state in northwestern Somalia) (2005) have all instituted bans on plastic bags, in some form or another - with very mixed results.
The Rwandan experience is, no doubt, the model of success in Africa for confronting the scourge of plastic waste. Avery important aspect of their initiative, which is often glossed over by the average plastic bag ban advocate however, is the fact that country’s 2004 ban (restricted only to bags that are less than 100 microns thick), was not issued in isolation. The ban has been successful mainly because policymakers judiciously supplemented it with concerted and sustained assistance to Rwandans for the establishment of recycling infrastructure within the country. As a result, Rwanda can, without ambiguity boast of a thriving recycling industry, with multiple locally owned and operated factories in the country (www.newtimes.co.rw). By contrast, according to liberianobeserver.com, there is only one company in Liberia presently engaged in the collection and recycling of plastic waste.
The Rwandan authorities’ commitment to unrelenting support for the plastics recycling sector in the country is evident when one considers the fact that even a decade after the ban was imposed, the Rwandan Ministry of Trade and Commerce continues to provide assistance to recycling companies for the acquisition of hi-tech plastics recycling equipment. The government has also implemented knowledge transfer initiatives that facilitate study tours for local factory owners to countries with advanced recycling facilities (allafrica.com). Rwanda’s success, which has received well-deserved accolades from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and others, cannot therefore be attributed to a simple ban on plastic bags, as some are so quick to portray it. Buttressed with rigorous efforts to effectively address the end-of-life issues for plastics, the ban was issued as part of a comprehensive waste management framework which has been integrated into the country’s national Umuganda platform.
In contrast to Rwandan’s ban, Somaliland’s ban, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum of plastics ban initiatives in Africa, has done absolutely nothing to ameliorate the country’s plastic bag quagmire. This is due to the profoundly spurious manner which their ban was instituted. Lacking the requisite capacity to enforce and/or monitor it, authorities issued the ban without any diligent effort to educate consumers or provide them with viable alternatives. Consequently, according to IRIN, the citycape of the capital – Hargeysa, is still bejeweled with plastic bags (often referred to as "Hargeysa flowers"), in spite of a ban that was introduced about a decade ago. The Somaliland experience therefore presents a cautionary tale for policymakers in Liberia if they are seriously committed to finding a sustainable solution to the vexatious problem of plastic bags strewn around Monrovia.
The point of this writing is to underscore the fact that no fragmentary approach such as a simple ban on “the importation of plastics materials,” regardless of how well-intentioned it might be, can adequately address Monrovia’s plastic bag morass. Any solution that seeks to address the mess in the city must consider the fundamental issue of product end-of-life as an integral part of a comprehensive framework for managing waste. All materials have a lifecycle which comprises the following stages: raw material extraction, manufacture, distribution, usage and end-of-life. In the case of Monrovia or Liberia’s plastic bag material, the options for end-of-life management are: dumping (litter), incineration, landfill or recycling.
Truth be told, polyethylene (which is the material that Monrovia’s grocery bags and water sachets are made of), is fully recyclable. While it is beyond the scope of this commentary to delve into recycling technologies at a disaggregated level, it would suffice to point out that recycling stands out as the most viable option for conserving the raw materials used to make plastic products. Landfill and incineration result in a waste of the raw materials, while indiscriminate dumping poses serious risks to the environment.
Plastics recycling must be considered not just as an integral part of any strategy for successfully dealing with Monrovia’s plastic bags challenge; it must be the bedrock of the strategy. If a ban is ever imposed on plastic bags in Monrovia without creating the infrastructure to recycle plastic waste, one can predict with certainty that the city will go the way of Hargeysa instead of Kigali; good intentions notwithstanding. For example, while Mayor Broh’s contemplated scheme of replacing thin plastic bags with thicker ones (her tlcafrica.com blog) is laudable, unless the fundamental constraints imposed by the paucity of recovery and recycling infrastructure are addressed, the thicker bags will suffer the same fate as the thin ones. They will end up in the trees and the drainage systems of the city.
To bolster plastics recycling in the country, there’s a need for policymakers, with participation form stakeholders, to develop a legislative framework for extended producer responsibility (EPR). The aim of such an initiative must be to ensure that the financial responsibility for products end-of-life management and their eventual environmental impact is placed on the shoulders of the producers/importers (“polluters pay”). For example, with a plastics recycling sector established in the country, a tiered levy system that places the highest premium on importation of lower gauge plastic films or bags (for example, 100 microns or less) will unquestionably discourage importation and use of such problematic thin bags and ultimately encourage the use of the higher-gauged, reusable, recycle-friendly ones.
Holding manufacturers and importers responsible by making them pay fees to defray the cost of recovery and disposal of the waste generated by their products will serve as inducement for them to voluntarily develop a deposit scheme for the recovery of plastic bags. Voluntary deposit system is not a totally new concept, as a similar system has worked seamlessly in the country for returnable glass bottles (beer and soft drinks) over the years.
Given the importance of recovery to the availability to feedstock and the ultimate success of any plastics recycling sector, consumers must be appropriately sensitized through public education and environmental awareness campaigns to discourage litter and boost recovery. The incentive-driven model of “trash for cash,” in which the recovery of plastic waste becomes an income-generating activity will also help in changing the “throw-way” mentality of the Liberian consumer. It is very important for Liberia’s policymakers to keep in mind that in a consumer-driven economy, market instruments are far more effective in influencing consumer behavior than promulgation of embargoes and proscriptions on the consumer.
The Author: The writer can be reached at email@example.com