YAOUNDA, CAMEROON — Small, transparent, widely available and cheap. Plastics bags are the major wrappings used in small stores and big supermarkets in Cameroon. In many ways, they have come to be part of the modern shopping experience across country.
Now, the government says they pose a danger to nature and has banned them. The law prohibits their manufacture, import or use. But as the came and went, there is no sense that plastic shopping bags will go away anytime soon.
In the streets of the capital Yaounde, plastics bags are as present as always. Shopkeepers remove them by instinct. Shoppers demand them forcefully. The bags are being used to hold anything: cubes of sugar, cigarettes, cookies, flour, grain, clothing and even cooking oil. Shoppers can have as many as they want because they don’t have to pay for them.
Plastic bags still proliferate in Yaounde
To get a sense of how this affects the environment, I drive to a bridge on River Mfoundi, near one of the city’s open-air markets.
Over the years this meandering waterway has shrunk to a seasonal stream, a victim of years of residential encroachment. Today, its banks have been squeezed narrow by thousands of shacks. But it is the piles of plastic bags and bottles that have chocked its duct.
The water is stagnant, dark and chuffs a pungent smell. It used to flourish with fish and crabs; but not anymore. Any life it harbored has been replaced by floating plastics and all sorts of rubbish. It used to snake nicely through the city. It’s now a deathtrap for unattended fowls, dogs and pigs.
Authorities say it’s examples like this that caused them to ban plastic shopping bags. Over the last months, the minister of environment, nature protection and sustainable development has been touring the country to explain the decision. Unlike other wrappings like paper, plastics can stay in nature for up to a thousand years – blocking waterways, destroying habitats and leaving soils infertile. The ban became operational on April 24.
Unfortunately, not many people are getting the message.
Deal with Cameroon’s bigger problems
Critics of the move say the government has more pressing environmental concerns than plastic bags. Over-logging has reduced the country’s forest cover by nearly a fifth. Illegal poaching is fueling trans-border crime. And the desert is eating up swaths of arable land in the north of the country.
They’ve also said the ban will be difficult to enforce. Officials plan to keep an eye on producers and importers to ensure that they comply.
But Cameroon’s borders are loose and large volumes of illegal goods are smuggled into the country every day. Another snag in the plan is the fact that law enforcement officers are not trained to distinguish degradable from non-degradable plastics.
Even then, the fiercest resistance is coming from small shop owners and hawkers who would be most affected by the ban. They have argued that most of the things they sell can only be held in plastic. They say paper and leaves won’t make a good alternative.
The shopkeeper’s dilemma
Michael Mbih, a grocery shop owner who has been using plastic bags for the past eight years, thinks the whole thing is senseless. Even though the ban came with a one-year period of grace, he thinks they were not given enough time to make the transition.
“People are used to using nylon papers and you cannot just ask them to stop overnight,” says Mbih. “When people come here, they expect me to wrap whatever they buy. Paper is very expensive and no one will be willing to pay extra for wrapping.”
The government says not all plastic bags will be affected. The ban targets small, thin and cheap varieties that are widely available and in very high demand.
Thicker and biodegradable alternatives will continue to circulate side by side with other options like fiber-based shopping bags, paper and even leaves. It says re-using shopping bags is both economical and friendly to the environment.
Environmentalist Augustine Njamnshi says the government must go further to make the ban work. He says the best way to make plastic bags go away is to reduce demand and stimulate the market for alternatives.
Create an industry of alternatives
“The government should not only make statements. They should make sure that is enforced,” says the environmental activist. “There are alternatives. We will create employment for young people to use plantain barks to [weave] bags. It can be done. It is being done.
“The government can set up small industries where women groups can produce shopping bags. We can take advantage of this and create employment for people. The only way to kill the use of plastic bags is killing the demand …”
But consumer behavior experts say it takes more than providing alternatives to convince the public to abandon old habits for new ones. It seems that when ban becomes enforceable later this month, plastics bags will stick around a little longer.