THE other day John Mwenesi (not his name) of Tabata in Dar es Salaam lost a cow. The animal had swallowed a plastic bag which contained ripe bananas peels.
The cow had opted to swallow the container and whatever was in it, after failing to grab the peels, she had intended to eat. Mwenesi had called a vet officer to attend to the cow but this move was of little assistance because by the time he arrived, the cow was already dead.
“This is quite a big loss especially if you think of how much I have spent on this cow. I don’t know when this country will put an effective ban on the production and use of plastic bags,” lamented Mwenesi.
The Tabata case is one of several such cases in which people have lost their livestock because they swallowed plastic bags. Some livestock keepers assert that goats have often fallen to the plastic bag killing menace because there are allegations that plastic bags taste salty and goats like them.
We have not heard yet, at least in Tanzania, of human loss of life due to the use of plastic bags but scientists have warned that plastic bags contain toxic substances which melt when heated. It is common sight in urban areas where food vendors use plastic bags to wrap food, including ugali, wali, mishikaki, chips and other cooked foodstuff in order to keep the food warm.
Vendors are also know to cover food in aluminum cooking pots in order to keep the food warm, a situation that scientists say also drains toxic substance from the plastic bags into the hot food.
While livestock perish almost as soon as they ingest plastic bags, the impact on human be ings is gradual, takes longer to identify and rarely are fatal cases traced directly to the toxins from plastic bags.
Perhaps warning bells rang with the death of the cow in Tabata, which is not an isolated one nonetheless, and authorities should have started to phase out the production, storage, sale and use of plastic bags that are scattered almost everywhere in urban centres.
The wide uses of plastic bags and the subsequent poor disposal methods have also threatened farmers with poor soils. Experts assert that when plastic bags are left on the soil they don’t decay and therefore prevent water from percolating into the soil. In the long run the soil loses moisture and fertility and becomes unproductive.
With the increasing use of plastic bags and without safe methods of disposal, the lives of human beings and livestock are threatened. Single use plastic bags are a problem not only in Tanzania but in almost all countries in the world.
It is for this reason that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has dedicated this year’s World Environment Day to raise awareness among nations and call for action to rid the world of plastic bags and related products. The message is simple; “BeatPlasticPollution.”
In an interview with BBC Dira ya Dunia in December last year, the Minister in the Vice-President’s office responsible for environment, January Makamba, was asked why Tanzania was still producing , distributing and using non-biodegradable plastic bags while her neighbours like Kenya and Rwanda have successfully banned their production and use.
The minister replied that the plastic bag industry in Tanzania was so entrenched in the society that it required a concrete strategy to phase out the bags gradually.
“We have to set up a mechanism; we have to set strong institutions that would enforce the ban once we declare it. There would be no point of announcing a total ban only to see the following day people still manufacturing, distributing and using the banned bags. We don’t want to fall into that situation,” he had said.
The minister’s response was similar to the one given by an officer at Chidaya Sanitary Landfill in Dodoma, Barnabas Faida. A team of journalists had visited the site and one of them had asked Faida why the government has not banned the manufacture, distribution and use of non-biodegradable plastic bags as they are big environment problem.
Actually plastic bags were a major component of the garbage dumped at the site and despite efforts to contain them by covering them with soil, still some of them were blown out of the pit and lay scattered around the site.
“The government cannot ban the use of plastic bags because it has to take into consideration the fate of the manufacturers; what will they do with their machines if we banned the manufacture of plastic bags today. Of course we have a law that requires the government to ban the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags but the situation on the ground is rather tricky,” he explained.
In a meeting with some members of the Journalists’ Environmental Association of Tanzania (JET) in 2011 to discuss the issue of plastic bags, the then minister responsible for environment had suggested that she would meet with the manufacturers to discuss how to phase them out.
“They are the major interested party and we can’t simply act without getting their opinion,” she had said. That meeting never took place and there was no statement of intent to ban the production and use of the plastic bags issued by the government.
It is clear that the government is reluctant to impose a ban on the production, distribution and use of plastic bags and neither is it willing to come up with appropriate methods of disposal of the bags so that they do not destroy the environment and endanger the health of lowincome Tanzanians.
There is also no doubt that the government is aware of the need to ban the production and use of the bags because of the destruction they cause to the environment and infrastructure. When a drainage system is clogged, more than fifty percent of the stuff scooped out comprises plastic bags, plastic bottles and other plastic material.
If a ban is imposed today, the manufactures will look for alternative trade. It is not upon the government to think for them and, in any case, the manufacturers did not consult the government when they started their businesses.
And this argument about vendors of plastic bags becoming jobless if a ban is imposed doesn’t hold water. Zanzibar has banned the production and use of single use plastic bags. I was in Darajani area in Zanzibar recently where boys who used to sell plastic bags now sell non-disposable bags and paper bags.
This is also happening in Morogoro Municipality where vendors who used to sell plastic bags now peddle non-disposal bags similar to those sold in Zanzibar. Of course they still sell plastic bags but they have sent a clear signal that they are ready and willing to change.
For them life goes on without the sale of plastic bags. Very often authorities have failed to take action ostensibly to get views from stakeholders. Well, it is good to make consultations but someone has to take the lead if indeed these are important.
In fact the National Environment Management Council (NEMC) is well-placed to initiate the discussions. Even if a total ban is imposed on the production and sale of plastic bags, NEMC would be the right organ to see that the ban is effective; it has that mandate.
In other countries where governments have banned the production and use of plastic bags, it is the environment protection agencies that enforce the order. It is the lowincome Tanzanians who use these plastic bags and, ironically, they are the once who are affected most.
But they look upon the government to help them get rid of this environment and health hazard by imposing a total ban on the production and use of plastic bags.