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How Rwanda Became the World’s Unlikely Leader in Plastic Bag Bans

While still recovering from genocide, Rwanda implemented a national ban on plastic bags -- a feat that only one U.S. state has accomplished.

plastic-bag
Rwanda outlawed plastic bags in 2008.
Flickr/John Catbagan
This story is part of Governing's annual International issue.

In recent years, a number of cities in the U.S. have passed special taxes aimed at discouraging the use of disposable plastic bags. A handful of places, notably San Francisco, have outlawed them entirely. But there’s one unlikely country that’s leading the way in banning the bag: Rwanda.

In 2008, the small East African nation of 12 million people instituted a national ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags. The polyethylene bags, which shoppers typically only use once before throwing out, are known to amass in landfills, litter streets, obstruct sewer systems and hurt marine life.

Rwanda was still recovering from the economic and emotional destruction of genocide in the mid-1990s. As part of a revival plan, leaders decided to emphasize environmental protection, resulting in a series of reforms that included the bag measure. It wasn’t the first national bag ban -- Bangladesh passed one in 2002 -- but Rwanda’s law has serious teeth. It prohibits the manufacture, use, importation and sale of the bags. Owners of businesses that violate the ban face up to a year in prison, and anyone caught carrying a bag faces stiff fines. Businesses that flout the rules are raided; travelers who enter Rwanda’s borders are subject to searches. Strict enforcement has led to some revolt among small business owners and the growth of a black market trade in plastic bags. But there’s been less ire from bag manufacturers, who were encouraged through tax incentives and recycling contracts to convert their businesses.

Rwanda’s audacious ban, however harsh it may be, seems to have been effective. Numerous international environmental agencies have praised the prohibition for helping clean up the streets of the country, especially the capital city of Kigali.

California, along with Massachusetts and Washington, has debated a statewide ban for years. California’s prohibition wouldn’t be nearly as severe as Rwanda’s -- no threat of prison, and no one will be raiding Golden State businesses looking for a secret bag stash. And the ban would likely only affect carry-out bags at grocery stores, liquor stores and pharmacies. But the latest proposed legislation does include ways to soften the ban’s impact on California manufacturing, including $2 million in loans and grants to retrain workers and repurpose bag manufacturers.

Advocates say that compromise could garner enough support for the bill to pass. “The new language does address some of the concerns that some folks had, and we’re now in the strongest position we’ve ever been before,” says Nathan Weaver, an advocate with Environment California, an activist organization.

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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