KIGALI — In the courtyard of the Ecoplastic factory in the Rwandan capital, a group of men and women are hanging plastic bags on a line with clothes pins, like they would do to dry a load of wash.
“People pick them here and there and bring them to us. We buy them and process them to turn them into another product,” explains Wenceslas Habamungu, an employee of the company.
Since 2011, small factories in Rwanda have been collecting and recycling all sort of objects made of plastic. According to Rose Mukankomeje, director general of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority, the goal is “to continue to avoid the scattering of plastic garbage in order to better protect our environment.”
Rwandese lawmakers banned the import, use and sale of polyethylene bags in 2008, because they considered them to be polluting the environment. Only bags made of reusable plastic are allowed, so much so that all non-biodegradable bags carried by passengers are seized by airport customs officials.
The battle against plastic bags is happening all over the country, even in the shops of small villages, where people sell them thinking they can escape the authorities’ watchful eyes. “Law and order must be applied to the whole territory, not only in cities,” a police officer explains.
A customs official at the border between Rwanda and Uganda puts it this way: “We seize bags like others seize drugs.”
But what about unavoidable packaging and containers, such as water bottles or medication? “We’ve signed an agreement with a few hospitals to collect the bottles of saline solution, the packaging of the mosquito nets and medicines,” explains Gilbert Ndagijimana, director of Soimex Plastic, a recycling factory in Kigali. “We transform them here and then sell them to local beneficiaries.”
The rest of the plastic comes either from the security agents who seize it or from youngsters who sort the garbage at the landfill site just outside the town and sell it to the factory.
After it has been processed, the plastic is used to make garbage bags, tents, canvas sheets, bags for mushroom cultivation or bags to hold bread. And although they may cost a bit more than imported products, some clients still prefer them because it supports both the local economy and the environment. Still, some Indian factories make cheap paper-like bags that have proved to be fierce competitors to those sold by local factories.
The recycling process also encourages the population to sort their garbage, setting aside biodegradable waste, which makes it easier for those who collect the plastic.
All told, the policy seems to be successful, having helped to begin changing the civic mentality. As Nyiramutijima Epiphanie, who lives in the capital, proudly explains, “People today are too ashamed not to recycle their plastic bags and garbage.”