Chocking the Life Out of Plastics

Using plastic bags is a common practice in Ethiopia, a country that aspires to build a carbon free economy by 2025. Although Ethiopia declared producing plastic bags of below 0.03mm illegal long ago, the proclamation has not been put into practice. Retailers openly trade bags below the recommended amount throughout Ethiopia. With that precedent in mind, the government has drafted a new law that totally bans plastic bags. While this is expected to be legislated in the next three months, producers complain such a measure would put them in a precarious situation. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale explores.

In January 2020, Solomon Oqubay received a plastic bag manufacturing machine worth a quarter of a million birr from the Development Bank of Ethiopia (DBE) under a lease financing scheme after paying 20Pct of the cost and agreeing to pay the remaining within two years. The refrigerator sized ‘punch machine’ is used to produce single use bags, locally known as festal. “Working with a friend of mine, I learned producing plastic bags is very simple and has a lucrative demand. So I decided to start production with my own machine,” he says.

Little did Solomon know that the Environment, Forest and Climate Change Commission submitted a draft proclamation of Solid Waste Management that seeks to totally ban the production, sales and use of single use plastic products to the parliament in the same month. “If the new proclamation is put into place, I will be unemployed and forced to close my business, even before repaying the loan,” says Solomon.

The bill puts a hefty ETB2,500 penalty on people who use festal, as well as on wholesalers, distributors and producers. The penalty would also apply for international and local passengers who touchdown at Bole international airport with the plastic bags. Single use plastic bottles, cups and straws are immune under the new proclamation. If ratified in three to six months as per the governmental timeline, Ethiopia will become the latest African country to totally ban plastic bags after Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tunisia, South Sudan and the latest, Tanzania.

However, turning the plan into a reality is not as easy as it may seem. Ethiopia’s existing proclamation, introduced in 2007, allows the production and use of plastics above 0.03milimeter thickness as well as decomposable products. This is based on an assertion that plastic bags with a higher thickness can easily be identified while thin plastic bags, which take over a century to be decomposed, are difficult to identify and pollute the environment. However, this proved to be unsuccessful.

A decade ago, single use plastic products used to constitute only three percent to five percent of the total solid waste in the country. The figure has now jumped to almost 14Pct, according to a recent assessment by the Environment Commission. Out of the 3,200 tons of solid waste generated daily in Addis Ababa, close to 165 tons is plastic waste.

Most of the waste is dumped to the koshe landfill while the rest is disposed to the environment, increasing loss of animal life. Carcinogenic, neurotoxin and hormone-disruptive chemicals are also found in plastic products, which find their way back to human consumption.

“Both licensed and unlicensed producers manufacture banned plastic products that are hazardous to the environment. The only difference the two have is the former produce it at night while the latter do it in day light,” says Girma Gemechu, Director of Solid and Hazardous Waste at the Commission. In his opinion, banning it is not optional; it is compulsory.

The number of industries engaged in the production of plastic products in Ethiopia is between 340 and 400, of which close to 100 produce single use plastic bags. The figure includes illegal producers that operate in the underground market and have a well-established network with wholesalers. Despite the concealed operation of illegal producers, it is the licensed manufacturers that produce the banned plastic bags. “Out of the 40 tips we received over the last six months, 36 of them were licensed manufacturers,” Girma says.

The absence of cooperation between DBE, the loan provider to enterprises that import machines which produce plastic bags below the recommended amount, and other implementing bodies has created loopholes.

Girma argues that the existing proclamation could not be implemented because it focuses only on producers. “No law is in place to stop wholesalers, distributors and consumers. The draft proclamation, however, gives power to the executive body to penalize them. Absence of coordination between implementing institutions is also expected to be solved after the draft bill comes into effect,” he explained.

Some fear implementing the new law would exacerbate the demise of plastic bag producers that have already been struggling for several reasons. Mulugeta Oqubay, General Manager of WAG General Trading, has been producing plastic bags for the last seven years. However, he stopped production and reduced staff size by half to 20 three months ago due to the absence of raw materials and power supply.

It is the low demand for thick plastic bags that pushed him to cut production and subsequently close the production line. “We never bypassed the law. Yet the demand for thick plastic bags that we produced [which is above 0.8mm] is very insignificant. Meanwhile, wholesalers and retailers openly trade the thin bags banned by the government and buy from illegal producers,” explained Mulugeta labeling the practice as unfair competition.

Annual per capita plastic consumption in Addis Ababa stands at 12 kilogram. In contrast, it is 20 kg in India and 100kg in west Europe and USA while the global average is 45kg. Currently, annual total plastic consumption in Ethiopia is between 280,000tons to 300,000 tons, of which single use plastic constitutes 70Pct.

Wholesalers of plastic bags, majority of them based in Merkato, usually prefer to buy the thin plastic bags. As they get a profit of ETB300 from a kilogram of such items, the consumer is technically pushed to use this material.

Although manufacturers prefer producing thick plastic bags as their profit margin is relatively higher, manufacturing the thin ones is not easy either. The machine, usually imported from China, can process 200 Kgs of thin plastic bags in 24 hours with enough power and raw material. Up to 1,000 thin plastic bags can also be produced from a kilogram of raw material imported from the Middle East and made from the waste of fuel refineries.

A piece of single use thin plastic bag (festal) is made of a raw material the size of chicken pea. However, most of the plastic producers in Ethiopia use old jerry cans, barrels and other plastics to produce the bags. Products made of such recycled waste should not be used to carry consumable products.

Thin plastic bags make it difficult for manufacturers to keep air out of the machines while it is also difficult to cut the plastics into thin pieces. All in all, Mulugeta explains, thin plastic bags are advantageous for traders while large size bags are favored by manufacturers.

“Large portion of the raw materials we import for plastic bags is waste and packing food with it is not recommended. Especially black plastic bags are produced only to carry treelings, although they are used to even carry foods in Ethiopia,” added Mulugeta.

Although such wrongdoing could have been avoided through self-regulation, the absence of an association that represents legal producers has become an obstacle to end the problem. “As most producers try to solve problems by bribing officials, a platform to bring us together is still non-existent,” says Mulugeta. He further pointed out that he plans to change his manufacturing line to plastic cables, if the new law will be approved.

Manufacturers of single use plastics also argue that they have been complying with the 0.03mm threshold, demanding governmental support to shift to another business since the machines cannot be used for another purpose. They also complain that the government did not consult them before introducing the banning proclamation. “We did not hear anything about the new law. Sudden banning is difficult as it gives us little time to shift towards other alternatives,” a Manager at Damene Shewane Plastics Plc says.

Globally, over 50pct of plastic use is controlled by law and regulation rather than by technology and recycling. As a result, many countries are shifting towards total ban. Out of the 8.3 billion tons of plastics produced between 1950 and 2015, only nine percent was recycled, according to reports. According to the world wide fund for nature (WWF), 570,000 tons of plastic waste ends up in the Mediterranean alone, each year, affecting sea life.

Legal action against non-biodegradable single use plastic products is increasing with the European Union banning their use as of 2021. Canada has followed suit along with numerous countries in Asia

African countries have also taken concrete measures against the use of single use plastic products. Tanzania recently introduced up to two years imprisonment or USD40,000 fining, for manufacturing or selling single use plastics and milder fines for users. In 2017, Kenya banned the use of the products with USD40,000 fines and up to four years imprisonment. Africa imported 172 metric tons of polymers and plastic estimated at USD285 billion between 1990 and 2017. Out of the 230 metric tons of its products imported during the time, Egypt constituted 18.7pct, Nigeria 17pct, South Africa 11.7pct, Algeria 11.3pct, morocco 9.6pct and Tunisia seven percent.

Some analysts suggest paying refundable money to consumers upon returning plastics can also activate the poor recycling culture in Africa. Trends from Europe show that a 10pct deposit results in 90pct return of plastic.

Recycling proved to be unsatisfactory in Ethiopia. “Recycling used plastics remains difficult and insignificant because plastic waste collectors earn highly discouraging amount of money. This is better only in water bottling as that has a better return,” manager of Damene Shewane Plastics Plc says.

For Yalemsew Habtew, Researcher at Chemical and Construction Inputs Industry Development Institute (CCIDI), recycling should not be an option now as the damage of plastic products has gone beyond the point of tolerance. He stated that some countries that have not banned single use plastics mandatorily hold plastic manufacturers to post their name, address and production detail on the plastic products. “The information provided constitutes expiry date and composition portions of recycled and virgin materials used to make it. The manufacturer is also responsible for its product recycling while it bears the responsibility if the plastic bag explodes while in use. This is not the trend in Ethiopia,” he remarked.

Yalemsew pointed out that the raw material used by domestic producers is not a virgin material as it has been recycled many times. “This imposes various health issues in Ethiopia, where people use plastic bags to carry consumable items like bread and injera. Legal plastic producers also don’t fully open up their activity to the government and consumer. Certification is also not enough,” insists Yalemsew who agrees in totally banning single use plastic products as regulating them is almost impossible. He, however, has reservations on the implementation of the bill as he thinks the strong institutions required for effective implementation are not there.

Tadesse adela, Director of Environmental Pollution Management and Regulation at the Environment, Forest, and Climate Change Research Institute, also agrees raising corruption as a notable obstacle to implement the ban. “I believe incentivizing plastic producers to shift to other business is extra generosity. If it is banned, they must stop production without any further negotiation,” he firmly stated. He added: “for instance, no institution negotiates on GMO since Ethiopia totally banned GMO. It must be similar for plastics.”

In Tadesse’s opinion, the plastic manufacturing sector is not significant enough economically. “The job creation is minimal. Its biggest impact is polluting the soil, water and consuming higher than its end use. Factories can shift to production of standard and regulated packaging products in industrial parks,” he adds.

Furthermore, Tadesse hopes banning plastics can even open another big opportunity for Ethiopia. “Ethiopia has huge potential in bamboo, which can be used to make bags. There are a number of alternatives for single use plastic bags, cups, straws, packages and others. We can also use traditional kacha, madaberia, zenbil, textile and bamboo, since they can be used more than once, and are decomposable,” he underscored.

Girma from Environment Commission gives hope to innovators who seek to introduce products that can replace single use plastics, like paper bags. “So far, very few industries like ‘Mitik’ have embarked on the endeavor,” he says. The finance for such businesses also comes from the ‘polluters pay’ that would be introduced for those that trespass against the proclamation. “For instance, agro-industries prefer plastics because glass bottles are unavailable. Therefore, they would pay polluters fee to compensate for the impact of their plastics on the environment. The fund will be used to finance innovational businesses that are engaged in producing environmentally safe products like paper bags,” concludes Girma. EBR


9th Year • Apr.16 – May.15 2020 • No. 85

Ashenafi Endale


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