Authorities in Cameroon have begun rolling out a campaign to eliminate non-degradable plastic bags by early next year.
The measure seeks to halt their risk to human and animal life as well as the environment.
Producers, importers and marketers of non-degradable plastic wrappings in Cameroon have until March next year to halt their distribution, or face government sanctions.
A decision announced in early August by the Ministry of the Environment states that beyond the end date, violators will risk between two and ten years imprisonment and fines of up to 20, 000 US dollars.
The clampdown was prompted by a study ministry study issued last year indicating that some six million tons of plastic waste are generated across Cameroon every year. The report further adds that over half of all plastic bag users dump them anywhere.
Urban and rural landscapes are littered with the discarded tattered plastic bags flapping from roof and tree-tops, tucked underneath shrubs, littering streets and open fields and clogging drainage systems.
Experts say the growing number of plastic bags is a huge menace to humans and animals as well as to the environment.
William Lemnyuy, an official in charge of waste control in the Ministry of the Environment, said when they remain in the environment, the bags block gutters, creating flooding. They also interfere with food production by preventing water from reaching the soil. Ingested plastics can also block the bowels of livestock.
The disposable bags are made from polyethylene, a petroleum byproduct with long repeating chains of hydrogen and carbon molecules known as polymers which can be heated, shaped and cooled to obtain plastic bags.
They're relatively cheap to produce and easily affordable and can easily be tossed away. But plastics can take a thousand years to decompose, and even so, they only break down into smaller toxic particles that contaminate water, soils and people.
The UN Environment Program estimates that up to five trillion plastic bags are manufactured worldwide annually. Of that number, only one percent is recycled.
"When you put hot food in a plastic bag," said Lemnyuy, "you start seeing the plastic melting. Some fluids from the plastic start going into your food. Plastic feeding bottles are not good for children because they use chemicals in them like bio-phenols which can cause sterility."
Lemnyuy said they can also cause cancer and birth defects.
Meanwhile, plastic bags have been quickly adopted for shopping and packaging. Today, the bags – referred to ironically as “African Flowers” -- have become a modern scourge. Several countries, beginning with South Africa in 2003, prohibit their use.
In Cameroon, the planned ban has sparked some grumbling. At the main market in Douala, vendors package every purchased item in non-degradable plastic bags.
The government has announced plans to begin producing non-degradable plastics beginning next year. It also intends to support private initiatives to recycle the bags, though the details are still being worked out.
In the meantime, environmentalists say a shift in thinking is crucial if the bags are to be eliminated.
Serge Katzem Poumfe, who works at the Regional Delegation for the Environment in Douala, suggests a return to simpler times when the leaves of plantains and other plants were used in food packaging.
"Of course," he said, "there’re alternative materials. If we cannot have access to leaves, we have other materials – cartons and biodegradable materials --that we can begin to go in for."
In the meantime, civil society organizations are joining government efforts to help recycle waste into usable productions – including woven fashion accessories, roof insulation, drums and children’s’ soccer balls.
One effort is a yearlong private sector initiative launched in Douala in mid-August. It recruits eco-friendly young people to scavenge the city’s growing garbage heaps for plastic waste that will be used in producing 10,000 litter bins. The government hopes the example will be followed by others in the lead-up to the March 2014 ban.
Listen to report on the hasards of using plastic bags in Cameroon