Arriving at customs on the Rwandan border I as always felt a slight trepidation handing over my dog-eared passport with an innocent smile, acutely aware that even if my visas are in order, I don’t look like a likely wrong-doer and I have committed no crimes, I am at the mercy of officials that have never met me and can refuse me entry if they see fit. The wiry, stern-looking young man, not much older than myself, didn’t return the smile, but accepted my offering.
That step of the entry process went smoothly, and I excitedly looked at the other side of no-man’s land to the promised land of the Rwandan hills, which I had waited so long to amble through and explore. However there was one more aspect to the entry procedure into the country that my Rwandan friends, my guidebook and my online research had neglected to warn me about.
I was asked to open my bags and allow the official to inspect the contents. I did so obligingly, slightly embarrassed at the objects I’d chosen to pack in my small bag, but proud of my neat, organized packing, all separated into ‘themed’ plastic bags: the t-shirts bag, the phone and laptop-charger bag, the toiletries bag, and so on and so forth.
But it wasn’t my choice of literature or of undergarments that stole his attention. I was asked to get rid of my carrier bag filing system. Confused, I said that they were just to pack my things in, and that he could inspect the full contents if he liked. He repeated, throw away the plastic bags.
I turned round and looked at the bin he was pointing at, expecting to see it overflowing with knives, flammable liquids and dubious objects of violence. Instead I saw an overflowing mountain of plastic bags, which had suffered a similar fate to that which awaited my own.
Once I had got over the initial blow to my backpack arrangement, I realised that I had just been through the most progressive, positive customs check in my personal history of travelling. No other country had ever ordered me to throw away anything other than liquids or knives (not that I make a habit of carrying knives around with me), but this treatment didn’t make me feel victimized nor targeted, but included. It was like I was being included and welcomed into this green haven of respect and earth-friendliness.
I told myself that I would find a different way to pack, and would adapt my shopping habits to not use the stubbornly polluting and environmentally disastrous objects which the Rwandan government has rightly banned in the country since 2006.
A polyethylene bag (the type most commonly used by supermarkets and other retailers) takes 500 years to biodegrade. Rwanda, in 21 years, has flourished into the economically prosperous and environmentally- forward-thinking country that puts it on the international tourist and development map. When you compare these two periods of time, it’s not difficult to decide which one is to be favoured, and which one is reason enough to change the way people conduct their daily activities.
When I arrived in central Kigali, what I had just been through, and what it represented, fell into place as I strolled down the cleanest streets I’d ever come across in all the African countries I’d been to thus far. I followed with wide-open eyes the shoppers with paper bags clutched to their sides, and canvas bags loaded with groceries.
Typically, I associate these bags with trendy alternative shops, hippy health foods shops, and bakeries. My few days in Rwanda broke down this unbalanced view of the bags and made me instead picture clean rivers, free-roaming animals and fresh air. Most inhabitants and retailers have adapted smoothly to this transition and have embraced the flexibility of branding that the paper alternative offers. It’s easier to stamp your logo and slogan onto a paper bag than a plastic one, and the process is quicker and cheaper.
This seven year-long ban on plastic bags has not been an isolated effort, but part of the government’s conscious efforts to create a healthy environment for present and future generations, and invest in internal policies to allow the nation to thrive and grow, rejuvenating both aesthetically and socially a country torn apart by a war and a genocide which smeared the nation a mere 21 years ago.
In this respect Rwanda is ahead of most European nations and most of North America. At the same time that the country banned plastic bags, the city of San Francisco also did. It’s a good start for the United States, and to this day 20 states across the country have a ban or a pending ban. But Rwanda got there first. A typical alternative tactic is to impose a small charge for each plastic bag shoppers take to carry their shopping. This eases shoppers into finding alternatives, and paves the way for a total ban, and is less extreme than the Rwandan approach, but still guzzles millions of tonnes of oil for any one country’s plastic bag consumption.
There are, of course, side effects to this extreme prescription to the world’s plastic bag plague. A nascent black market is trading in the illegal product in Rwanda, grouping together the small retailers who can’t afford the more expensive paper bags and who feel cheated by the ruling, which is impractical for many fresh products such as fish, meat, or heavy goods.
The banned goods are finding their way back into the country, as smuggling rackets cash in on traders’ desires to package their goods in the ‘old-fashioned’ way. Plastic bags have only been around for 50 years, but have created a dependence on them because of the very durability and longevity, which makes them so very harmful for the environment.
The ban remains stubbornly in place though, to the delight of conservationists and environmentalists such as myself. Though I continue to use plastic bags outside of Rwanda, my already-acute awareness of the possibilities of a plastic bag-free world has been built upon to make me look for alternatives wherever possible.
I hope other countries follow suit, and that increasingly, arriving at the Rwandan border with be a smooth and worry-free experience with no overflowing bins of plastic, because the whole world will be plastic-free.