September 27, 2015
BAMENDA, CAMEROON – Pa Mesh’s shop displays hair extensions. They hang on the walls and are neatly packed on the floor. Many of his customers come here for those products, but others know something else is for sale too.
“Pa, I want buy rappin,” a little boy says in pidgin English. He is asking to buy a plastic bag, but such bags have been banned in Cameroon since last year.
Pa Mesh balks. He tells the boy he doesn’t sell that contraband.
But for serious customers, Pa Mesh has a different answer.
A woman comes in a few minutes later.
“Daddy, ya-ya nkum, five packets,” she says, using the code phrase for plastic bags. It’s illegal to buy or sell them in Cameroon.
Pa Mesh, who asked to use a pseudonym for this story, excuses himself. The woman follows, and Pa Mesh returns moments later, alone. The woman got what she came for, then exited through a back door.
Pa Mesh began smuggling plastic bags from Nigeria more than a year ago. Packs of small, white plastic bags are tucked into shipments of hair extensions.
“The loaders carefully pack it in a way that wouldn’t call for suspicion at the level of the customs,” he says.
Business is booming, he says, because demand for plastic bags is high and supply is low. These days, he earns more selling plastic bags than he does selling hair extensions.
“I make more than 100 percent profit in the sale of plastics,” Mesh says. “Sometimes, I make as much as 150 percent, and that is huge profit for a businessman.”
Cameroon banned nonbiodegradable plastic bags measuring less than 60 microns (two-thousandths of an inch) in thickness last year. It is one of over 20 African countries to outlaw plastic bags in some way, but the effort to get rid of the bags has been foiled by smugglers who sneak the bags into Cameroon, hidden in legal shipments or hauled across the border on footpaths from neighborhing countries, including Nigeria. Nigeria announced a bag ban in 2013, but it’s not clear if that ban ever went into effect.
Environment ministry officials seize the bags wherever they find them, but smugglers aren’t discouraged. As the bags flood into Cameroon, the government is scrambling to step up efforts to get rid of them for good.
Since the ban took effect in April 2014, the Ministry of Environment, Protection of Nature and Sustainable Development and the police have seized and burned more than 20 tons of nonbiodegradable bags confiscated from importers and retailers in the Northwest region alone, says Tansi Laban, the ministry’s regional delegate for the Northwest region. The search for and seizure of plastic bags is ongoing, he says. But it’s not enough. He says he estimates that more than 50 tons of the bags to come into the Northwest region each month, he says.
The ban was meant to preserve the environment. According to a 2014 report from the environment ministry, plastic goods make up 10 percent of the 6 million tons of municipal waste generated in Cameroon each year.
The problem is a global one with a trillion single-use plastic bags are used every year, according to 2014 statistics from the Earth Policy Institute, which closed its doors in June. Plastic bags and other waste has blocked drainage systems contributing to seasonal floods in east and west Africa, according to a the Global Waste Management Outlook 2015 from the U.N. Environmental Programme. They are also a risk to domestic animals, the report says, who can suffer health problems after eating plastic bags.
Laban told Global Press Journal at the time of the ban that the change was also intended to stop the packaging of hot foods in thin plastic bags. Laban says when hot foods are put into the plastic, the bags emit poisonous petroleum substances that have long-term health effects.
Despite the ban on the bags and warnings, some people still put hot food in plastic bags. This is common in the Northwest region of Cameroon where fufu, a staple food made of cornmeal, is stored in thin plastic bags to preserve its softness as it cools. Some families still cook food tied in plastic bags.
And traders continue to use – and sell – plastic bags.
Vivian, who asked that her full name not be used, owns a provisions store in Bamenda. She says she sells only to people she knows.
“You will never know who is working with the delegation of environment to bring us to book,” she says.
A year ago, she says, the environment ministry seized plastic bags worth about 50,000 francs ($85) from her store. Since then, she has reduced her stock.
Vivian says she buys bags from wholesalers who smuggle them from Nigeria. She buys 12 packs of bags at a time for about 1,800 francs ($3) and sells them for about 200 francs (34 cents) per pack. Each pack contains 12 small packs made up of 100 small plastic bags.
Some traders say they’re forced to use plastic bags because their customers refuse to buy unpackaged goods.
“If you don’t have plastics to package your goods, customers will not buy from you,” says Miriam Ngum, who sells carrots at the Bamenda food market. The plastic bags have become more expensive since the ban, but she says she has to buy them.
A packet of plastic bags that cost 100 francs (17 cents) before the ban now costs 200 francs (34 cents), she says.
The government has suggested alternative packaging, including paper; bags made of cloth or raffia; and leaves, but market traders and their customers say those alternatives are not practical or affordable.
Some shoppers bring their own reusable bags, but they say that solution doesn’t work well.
“Imagine I have to buy meat, groundnuts, sliced fruits, salt and pepper,” says Celine Kukwa, a housewife. “What will come of all those things crammed in one market bag? To be honest, I don’t think we can survive without plastics in this country.”
Kukwa says she doesn’t buy products that the vendor won’t wrap up.
“There will always be someone who has plastics to package your goods, and that is where I will buy,” she says.
Camfoods, a bakery and supermarket chain, is among the businesses that have complied with the ban.
“We stopped using nonbiodegradable plastics from the day the ban took effect,” says chain manager Nadege Kernyuy. “That has impacted negatively on our spending.”
Now, Kernyuy says, the store uses satin paper to wrap bread, cakes, hamburgers and other prepared goods. The supermarket section uses biodegradable plastic bags. The papers are free to customers, but the biodegradable bags cost 50 francs (9 cents), 75 francs (13 cents) and 100 francs (17 cents), depending on the size.
The store spends about 200,000 francs ($341) each month to buy the satin papers, she says, adding that it’s too much for the store to pay. Before the ban, she says, the store spent about 40,000 francs ($68) a month on plastic bags.
Kernyuy says the store will soon stop using satin paper and that customers will have to bring their own packaging.
“It takes not just money; it takes time as well,” she says. “Workers spend time cutting and stapling the papers, time that they would have used to attend to more customers.”
Smuggling is making it impossible to rid Cameroon of plastic bags, says Laban, the regional environmental delegate.
“More than 90 percent of the nonbiodegradable plastic bags used in the Northwest region come from Nigeria,” he says. “Traders smuggle it into Cameroon on a daily basis.”
The Northwest region’s problem mirrors what’s happening nationwide. Some smugglers use public transportation, and others trek through wild frontier lands along Cameroon’s borders. As much as officials seize contraband bags, smugglers just keep sneaking them into the country.
A customs officer, who spoke to GPJ on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, says he and the other officials who work with him at the Ekok border station along the Nigeria-Cameroon border thoroughly check all trucks and boats coming into the country for contraband, including weapons and protected species. They also check for nonbiodegradable plastic bags, he says, but they don’t find many.
“Smugglers are very smart. They may employ new tactics just to achieve their goal,” he says.
Julie Chambi, who leads the Community Initiative for Sustainable Development, says the ban might have been more effective had the government prepared small traders before it was enacted. Officials should have educated bayam-selams, women who sell goods and food at open markets, about the change, she says.
“They should take their time to go down to the market women, traders and users to really explain to them why the government is banning nonbiodegradable plastics,” Chambi says. “They should make them see reasons why they should stop selling and using it.”
The government should rescind the ban for a year while traders prepare for the change, she says. Bayam-selams and other vendors need time to explore alternatives.
“If the government places a ban on nonbiodegradable plastic without ensuring access to affordable alternative packaging, what do they expect the population to do?” she asks.
Chambi says the government should offer grants or loans to business owners to help ease the transition.
The government is taking note of the challenges faced by traders. The prime minister in June approved funding for councils, Cameroon’s local government entities, to receive 4,000,000 francs ($6,828) each to scale up efforts to eliminate plastic bags.
“This will go a long way to curb the sales as councils are responsible for the management of Cameroon public markets,” Laban says.
Laban says that money is likely to be disbursed in coming months.