This past couple of weeks I have delighted in showing off my fancy environmentally friendly basket bags – made out of recycled material. I purchased my bags from enterprising and innovative young ladies whom I met on 31st January 2015 at the “Power Breakfast”, an event that is regularly organised by my friend Joan Mugenzi under the auspices of her business mentoring consultancy “Holding each other’s hands all the way”. These enterprising young ladies impressed me for they are myth busters – they do not fit the typical imagery in the popular media about Uganda’s youth unemployment crisis with all its ills and scares. They were beautifully composed and confident in their product; and so they should for their product was impressive – particularly the finish of their baskets.
At the power breakfast they had only brought small baskets, of which I bought five in three different colours. The small baskets that I bought were what I was looking for to solve the mess on my dressing table – my necklaces of beads African style have since been tamed. At the power breakfast, I asked the young ladies if they had and/or could make me bigger basket bags primarily for carrying my computer and paper-based documents and also my groceries. We discussed designs, shape, size, colour and they agreed to deliver to me samples from which I could choose. Shortly after the power breakfast the ladies delivered to my assistant three bags of different colours, I was away travelling on business. When I got back I saw the three bags and fell in love with them all. I instructed my assistant to mobile money the payment for all three bags and a fantastic business deal had been completed.
All this happened months before Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) finally decided to enforce a ban on polythene bags as shopping carrier bags. NEMA gave supermarkets and farmers markets a deadline to phase out polythene bags; and by the time the deadline arrived on 15th April 2015 they have seemingly complied. NEMA’s ban of polythene shopping bags has since become one of the much talked about subject with many lamenting the crisis of no-polythene bags for shopping. “What does the Government want us to do now? How will we carry our shopping home? Why did the Government not first find an alternative for us before banning polythene bags?” The incredulous and purposeless lamentations continue. Then the big shocker, in order to enforce the ban on polythene bags, the Government is reportedly planning to compensate for loss of business those who invested in and have profited from producing polythene bags?
Perhaps a historical context might help at this point. In November 2001, fourteen years ago, as part of a tutor marked assignment for my Master of Science Degree studies I wrote a description of the curse of polythene bags in Uganda as an environmental issue about which I felt strongly and which I had a stake. I wrote:
Slightly over 10 years ago (now over 24 years ago), it was very rare to see or find Ugandans using polythene bags to package and/or carry their shopping. However, these days, people go into a shop and/or market expecting their purchases to be packed in polythene bags. It is not uncommon for one to leave a shop with over 10 polythene bags each time they go shopping. After all, each item is packed separately in a separate polythene bag and then the smaller items, already packed in small polythene bags, are packed in bigger polythene bags (sometimes doubled up) for ease of carrying.
The problems come when the time comes to dispose the polythene bags.
The traditional way of disposing garbage, which is still quite widely practiced in Uganda, is in garbage pits (hole in the ground). This system works well as long as the garbage disposed has the capacity to decompose. Polythene does not decompose. It is therefore a common site in Uganda these days to find piles of garbage. Most city councils are suddenly faced with a huge task of finding other ways in which to dispose garbage. They find themselves with the need for more garbage trucks, which come with extra running and maintenance costs. The garbage trucks are required in order to ferry garbage to designated garbage sites. The designated garbage sites are also getting choked and soon there will be no where to dispose garbage. There is also the added problem that people do not always dispose their garbage into the garbage pits, where it can be systematically collected. They just throw it anywhere, wherever the package was opened, or where the consumption took place. So, generally, you find large areas littered with garbage, especially polythene bags. The fact that polythene does not decompose is a danger in the sense that it chokes the land. Garbage that decomposes has its uses like rejuvenating soil (manure).
In addition, there have been several reports that polythene is threatening the lives of animals, particularly domestic animals, such as livestock, which feed on grass, peels, etc. There have been incidences in which disposed polythene bags have ended up mixed in garbage, such as green banana peels, which is fodder for animals such as cows and goats. By mistake the animals swallowed bits of polythene and choked to death.
I feel so strongly about this issue because we, ordinary people, as opposed to government, can do something about it, if we were not so selfish and lazy. I recall as a young child, whenever we went with my mother to the market or to the shops, she always had shopping baskets (made out of palm leaves mostly). Our purchases were put directly in these baskets (various fruits, fresh foodstuffs, etc.) and when we got home we would sort them, wash them and put them in their respective storage places. The shopping baskets were cleaned and kept for the next time we went shopping. Even when the baskets become old and unusable, they were dumped in the garbage pit and they would decompose. In addition, we had containers that could be re-used for storing items such as sugar, salt, tea leaves, cooking oil, etc. Instead of packaging these items in polythene bags, shop owners would expect shoppers to come with their re-usable containers and their purchases would be put directly in those containers. Paper bags were also more widely used as opposed to polythene bags. It is the old fashioned way, and in some cases cumbersome, but it is certainly a more superior choice in terms of preserving the environment.
Instead, our selfishness and laziness is already destroying our environment and that of future generations. Moreover, we waste resources making the polythene bags, using them and trying to get rid of them. In this case, I agree with those who hold the view that we cannot afford to exclude environmental concerns as the rate at which we are using some of our resources and polluting air, soil, fresh waters and oceans must be reduced if we are to meet basic human needs both now and in the future. I have decided that, whenever possible, when I go to the market I go with a shopping basket and whenever I can, I will request the shop/stall attendant not to pack my purchases in a polythene bag. At least this is reducing the number of polythene bags that I use. Whenever possible I re-use my polythene bags. In addition, I lament about the way polythene is destroying our environment to whoever will listen, including to shop/stall attendants, my friends, my family, etc.
My past experience of shopping as a child with my mother has some influence on the way I think now about how we, as adults, pollute the environment just by the way we shop. My experience of a garbage littered city, provoked a thought process – how come? Why? Isn’t there a solution? This process enabled me to take a decision to do something, even if at a personal level. My decision to do something led to my choice not to use polythene bags unnecessarily. I hope that those around me we also feel the same way as I do about the damage that polythene bags are causing and that they will take some decisions and actions on their individual levels.
For this description I scored 31 of the 35 question points, that is to say I scored 89 percent; at Masters Degree level it is an awesome achievement. My tutor’s comment was: “Question answered clearly and directly, explaining your concerns about this issue very well … Does the government have a policy? Why were polythene bags introduced in the first place?”