May 14, 2014
BAMENDA, CAMEROON – Businessman Mirrand Soho sits pensively in his nearly barren plastic bag shop in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s Northwest region, pondering his next move.
The 28-year-old has been a wholesale trader in thin, nonbiodegradable plastic bags for five years. But three weeks ago, the government banned plastic bags measuring 60 microns (.002 of an inch) or less, which Soho had been selling.
“The ban has affected me terribly,” Soho says with a strained face. “Business is bad.”
His sales have declined from 1 million Central African francs ($2,088) a week before the April 24 ban to less than 50 francs (10 cents) a week.
The government has advised manufacturers to supply thicker, biodegradable bags – the only kind of disposable plastic bags it now allows.
Officials of the Ministry of Environment, Protection of Nature and Sustainable Development’s Northwest regional delegation visited Soho’s shop and assured him that these bags would be available before the ban took effect, he says. But three weeks later, he is still waiting for the bags.
“We, the plastic bag vendors, are just so confused,” he says. “The Ministry of Environment has not given us any answers yet. Up till now, they have failed to tell us where and how to get the alternative bags that they are talking about.”
Even when these bags become available, Soho does not see his business recovering because they are more expensive. The quantity he used to sell for 25 francs (5 cents) will sell for 100 francs (20 cents), and not many people can afford that, he says.
When Soho first heard about the ban from TV and radio news reports in January, he nearly had a heart attack because his wholesale business had been making life worthwhile, he says.
“My family is suffering the effects of the ban,” he says. “I find it difficult to give enough food money to my wife these days.”
Soho and other vendors express fear that the ban on the popular nonbiodegradable plastic bags that they used to sell will put them out of business. Government officials said alternative biodegradable plastic bags would be available before the ban took effect. But vendors say this has still not happened and the alternative bags will be quadruple the price.
The Ministry of Environment, Protection of Nature and Sustainable Development banned the nonbiodegradable bags for two reasons, says Tansi Laban, an agro-environmentalist and the regional delegate of the ministry for the Northwest region. The first reason is environmental, as thin plastic bags decay more slowly than thick ones.
Plastics constitute 10 percent of the 6 million tons of municipal waste generated in Cameroon annually, according to a ministry report. Thousands of marine animals, and more than 1 million birds die each year as a result of plastic pollution. Some plastic bags need up to 400 years to decompose completely, posing a threat to landfills. The report cites a U.N. Environment Programme estimate that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of the ocean.
The second reason for the ban is to stop the packaging of hot foods in the thin plastic bags, which is dangerous to human health, Laban says. When filled with hot food, such plastics emit inedible petroleum substances that cause long-term health problems.
The problem is especially severe in the Northwest region of Cameroon, where many residents store hot “fufu,” a staple food made of cornmeal, in plastic bags to ensure it remains soft as it cools, Laban says. Some families even tie up food in plastic bags and cook it in pots for hours.
Cameroon is among nearly 20 African countries and cities that have at least partially banned disposable plastic bags, according to the Earth Policy Institute. Rwanda became one of the first Central African nations to restrict packaging in 2008 when it banned nonbiodegradable plastic bags thinner than 100 microns (.004 inch), which covers most carryout bags.
This year, Guinea-Bissau and Nigeria both banned plastic bags. Nigeria also banned the sale of plastic sachets of drinking water.
Max Ntangsi, an economist and lecturer at the University of Buea, says it is difficult to estimate the number of plastic bag dealers in Cameroon because there are no records of businesses in the informal sector and such businesses open and close every day.
But the ban will affect plastic bag vendors and small-scale retailers who are used to packing merchandise in the nonbiodegradable bags, he says.
“Thousands of vendors will be affected, especially around cities,” he says. “This might lead to unemployment.”
The worries of plastic bag wholesalers in Bamenda extend to their employees.
Clescence Tatang has been a saleswoman in a wholesale plastic bag store in Bamenda for three years.
“When I heard of this ban, the first thing that came to my mind was the fact that I was going to lose my job,” she says.
Like Soho, Tatang says she has already seen the effect of the ban in the past three weeks.
“There is no business,” she says, pointing at empty shelves. “Take a look at my shop.”
The store has only a few thick biodegradable plastic bags that suppliers delivered in April as samples so customers could familiarize themselves with them.
Officers of the Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of Environment, Protection of Nature and Sustainable Development had visited Tatang several times before the ban took effect and explained why it was necessary, she says. But they did not tell her who the new suppliers would be.
There are no producers of plastic bags in Bamenda.
Tatang’s employer has called his former suppliers in Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, asking whether they would switch to producing new biodegradable bags, she says. But they did not give him any information.
In addition to promoting biodegradable plastic bags, the government encourages traders to use alternative packaging, such as brown paper or jute bags; raffia baskets; cartons; or newspaper, brown paper, and plantain and banana leaves for wrapping items.
Since the ban took effect, government officials have been seizing stock from wholesalers selling the nonbiodegradable plastic bags, Soho says. Because the government gave vendors advance warning, it is not compensating them for seized bags.
Customs officers are also on alert to stop the smuggling of nonbiodegradable bags into Cameroon through Nigeria, Laban says.
Ntangsi says the ban will affect society negatively, at least in the short run. He predicts the ban will lead to unemployment if the government does not ensure that alternative bags are available soon. He also warns that the alternative bags will be more expensive than their predecessors.
In addition to affecting the livelihoods of plastic bag producers and vendors, the ban will push into poverty hundreds of Cameroonians who make a local juice that is packaged in plastic bags, Ntangsi says. Traders who sell chin chin, a West African snack made of fried dough; groundnuts; and sweets in nonbiodegradable plastic bags are also likely to suffer.
“This policy will affect grossly the already poor people who have been struggling to barely sustain their livelihoods and to support their partners,” he says. “We are expecting more crimes and more prostitution if care is not taken.”
But Laban says the ban is necessary. Most residents do not sort their trash to remove nonbiodegradable plastics before disposal, which hampers the work of waste management agents.
The ban aims to safeguard the environment, not to throw vendors out of business, he says. He assured that manufacturers would supply alternative plastics before the ban.
“The ministry started contacting producers in 2012,” he said before the ban. “We expect them to switch from producing nonbiodegradable plastics to biodegradable plastics. We also encourage new producers to take up the new business if they so desire. What we don’t want is the production, supply and sales of nonbiodegradable plastics.”
Laban asked wholesalers to be patient and not to panic.
“There is obviously going to be a replacement,” he said. “That is to say, businesspeople will have to switch from buying and selling nonbiodegradable plastics to biodegradable plastics.”
But Soho and other wholesalers are still waiting. Since the ban was enacted, Laban and other ministry officials have not been available for comment on a revised date for when the alternative plastic bags will come into circulation.
Meanwhile, Soho has been trying to think of an alternative business. But he has not come up with any ideas yet.