It is a sunny Friday afternoon outside the gated compound of Reform Africa in this central district of Mpigi-Uganda. Dozens of women, wearing brightly coloured bandannas are sorting through heaps of polythene bags, cleaning them up before spreading them out to dry.
The women-led Ugandan startup is tackling the plastic waste problem by turning polythene bags locally known as “kaveera” into fashionable sustainable bags, a process known as upcycling, helping to turn the tide against rapid plastics pollution in Uganda that is destroying the environment.
According to Shamim Naluyima, one of the founders, the startup has been turning plastic waste into sustainable bags for the last 5 years. It is the latest effort against an increasingly dangerous hazard in the country where only 6 percent of 600 metric tons of disposed of plastic waste is safely collected, leaving the bulk of these environmentally dangerous items to choke the already ailing ecosystem, according to the state environmental watchdog, National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).
A polythene bag is a type of plastic textile made of thin, flexible, plastic film. These are commonly used for packaging, containing and transporting goods such as foods, and produce around Uganda and are often disposed of anywhere.
Reform Africa employs over 100 single mothers and youth who are paid to collect polythene bags from several dumpsites and landfills around Kampala, a city of 3 million residents.
Every week the women at Reform Africa collect around 50 tons of polythene bag waste. After collecting, the women sort and wash the bags getting rid of any dirt and mud before drying them in the sun. When the material is ready, with a unique technique, it is tailored into fashionable backpacks, shopping bags, cross bags or smaller toiletry kits that are sold to potential customers.
“One final Reform Africa bag is made out of 15 polythene bags. On average, they recycle 200 tonnes of plastic waste a month,” says Naluyima gesturing towards the heap of plastic bags in the sprawling yard.
The enterprise is promoting a cleaner and plastic-free environment while providing formal employment opportunities for women and youth. It is one of the many enterprises involved in the plastic waste collecting, upcycling and recycling business in Uganda. These have created numerous job opportunities for marginalized groups, including women and the majority of unemployed youth.
“The amount of waste collected by each employee is recorded daily and they are paid accordingly at the end of each month earning around 50$,” says Naluyima.
However, not all has been smooth sailing for the enterprise. Ignorance among the general public about the advantages of plastic recycling and the dangers of plastic pollution are some of the reasons for less customer acquisition and low sales of recycled bags. The enterprise plans on engaging in online marketing and sensitizing people about plastic pollution.
The plastic waste problem remains a major crisis for Africa’s growing economies. According to United Nations Environmental Programme, sub-Saharan Africa alone produces over 17 million tonnes of waste annually, only 12 percent of the region’s plastic waste is recycled. The ever-growing population, rapid urbanization, as well as the weak structures for plastic waste management across growing cities, are some of the reasons for the plastic waste crisis.
Uganda’s disposal, recycling and waste management systems remain inefficient, with 70 per cent of plastic and non-plastic waste ending up in landfills, sewers, and water bodies. The government has put in place necessary laws to regulate the use and disposal of plastic waste.
According to the Uganda National Environment Management Act 2019, section 76 stipulates that a person who imports or manufactures plastics shall as a precondition for continued operation; ensure that recycling is part of that person’s active operations; label the plastics or plastic product, and put in place a mechanism that is satisfactory to the Minister to buy back or remove from the environment plastic and plastic products. However, implementation and enforcement of this law remain a pipe dream and environmentalists argue that there is no political will to see it through.
Brenda Ntambirweki, a Research Fellow at Advocates Coalition for Development and Environmentwhich is a member of Uganda’s green economy coalition, says that in the wake of Covid-19, Uganda needs decisive policy action aimed at tackling plastic waste pollution and management.
While countries like Kenya and Rwanda have succeeded in banning single-use plastic bags, Uganda is yet to implement the same. In 2018, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni banned single-use plastic bags but enforcement of the measure was never effected.
Robert Tumwesigye, the Director at Pro-Biodiversity Conservationists, a local environment group, says that there is a lack of political will to enforce the total ban on single-plastic use in Uganda, even when the environmental impacts are already being felt.
“There is no silver bullet to solving the problem of plastics waste in Uganda. It has to be a top-down approach,” he says. “Interventions are needed at every stage of the plastic lifecycle: from production to disposal, waste management, recycling and to transitioning to a circular economy approach.”
Across Africa, plastic pollution threatens marine life, and human health and contributes to climate change. According to the new report fromthe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate, Change plastics remain major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for global warming and climate changes. The report estimates that the carbon contribution of the plastic industry could rise to 2.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year by 2050.
Plastic bags are resistant to many natural processes of degradation which makes them harmful to the environment. Even when they break down-a process known as photodegradation, chemical and harmful substances get released into the highly toxic environment. These toxic pollutants cause land and water pollution. Open burning of plastic waste which is common in many African countries is a major source of air pollution. Burning plastics releases black carbon that has a global warming potential up to 5,000 times greater than carbon dioxide.
In the marine environment, animals are killed every year by plastic bags which they often mistake for food. Early last year, thousands of tons of dead fish washed up on the shores of Lake Victoria- Africa’s largest freshwater ecosystem, that Uganda shares with Kenya and Tanzania. The phenomenon scientists have blamed on increased levels of plastic waste that is choking the lake.
As countries across the world gear up for this year’s COP27 summit in Egypt, climate campaigners have tasked governments to place plastic at the centre of the agenda since the global plastics industry is the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, behind the US, China, India and Russia.
According to Dr Akankwasa Barirega, the Executive Director at NEMA, the amount of plastic waste generated in Uganda overwhelms the urban authority’s capacity to collect and dispose of given the enormous resources involved.
“Plastic manufacturers have the responsibility to collect the plastics from the environment. NEMA will soon will up with punitive express penalty fines for companies whose plastics are widespread in the environment,” he says.
NEMA also wants urban authorities nationwide to criminalise common littering by persons and institutions.
Uganda recently launched the country’s first-ever green growth report for the year 2020, entitled: “Stimulating resource use efficiency in manufacturing and waste management for sustainable development”. The report reflects Uganda’s progress towards implementing its Green Growth Development Strategy which was developed to operationalise broad green growth principles emphasized in the global Agenda 2030. The strategy seeks to achieve inclusive, low-emission economic growth that prioritizes the efficient and sustainable use of natural, human, and physical capital. The report highlights that greater public awareness of waste management is still required as well as greater gender awareness so that women and young people are encouraged to take part in green jobs and growth initiatives.
“Now is the time for investments, and innovations in waste management so that Uganda can build back from the Covid-19 pandemic greener and more resilient,” said Hon. Beatrice Anywar Atim, Minister of State for Environment at the launch of the programme.
International initiatives on plastics
Last year, UNEP launched the African Green Stimulus Programme an innovative African-led initiative developed to support the continent’s recovery response sustainably to the devastating socio-economic and environmental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the key elements of the Africa green stimulus programme is improving air quality, enhancing chemicals and waste management and promoting the circular economy.
The initiative is intended to bring about a unifying continental response by enhancing partnerships between Intergovernmental Organizations, African countries, the Private Sector and Non-governmental organizations in the support of a comprehensive green recovery Programme for Africa. It is also intended to support the attainment of Africa’s Agenda 2063 aspirations, relevant sustainable development goals and the targets of the Paris agreement.
At the recent United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) in Nairobi, several countries endorsed a historic resolution to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024. The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal.
“Today marks a triumph by planet earth over single-use plastics. This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord. It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP in a statement.
This article is part of African Women in Media (AWiM)/UNEP Africa Environment Journalism Programme