Uganda’s Environment Laws Are Slow, but Artist Is Quick to Recycle Plastic Waste


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Allen Nabukenya, a local artist whose work is mostly made from plastic bags and bottles, created this tent-like structure that stands outside her workshop in Uganda’s central Wakiso district. She did this piece in the early years of her career. Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

Bags. Bottles. Tires. A woman uses all these to make artworks and raise awareness of the threat of pollution in a country where recycling isn’t widespread.

WAKISO, UGANDA — In 2015, after years of delay, Uganda finally joined a growing list of African countries fighting plastic pollution. A government ban made it illegal to manufacture, sell and use plastic bags, locally referred to as polythene bags. Three years on, the ban has had little success, with only a few arrests made, says Allen Nabukenya, speaking against the backdrop of heaped plastic bottles, bags and old car tires at her workshop.

Because there are no cheap alternatives to the popular bags, households and business owners in her community have struggled to comply with the government’s move to make Uganda cleaner, she says. Many people dispose of the bags in public spaces, she adds.

“They are in the roads, water drainages, markets, community waste dumping sites – pretty much everywhere,” she says.

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Allen Nabukenya puts the finishing touches on this artwork, which doubles as a board game. The traditional game of mweso is played across Uganda.

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

As authorities, environmentalists and hawkers remain divided on what it takes to reduce plastic-bag litter in the East African country, the efforts of this one local woman are helping to cut down on stray plastics in Namere, a small village in Uganda’s central Wakiso district. Nabukenya makes art pieces, furniture, handbags, belts, shoes and other wearable accessories from used plastic bags and other imperishable waste.

Hard and soft plastics make up the second-largest form of waste generated in Uganda’s capital Kampala, after organic waste, according to the Kampala Capital City Authority. The Ugandan government first attempted to scale down this type of waste in 2009, with legislation that prohibited importation, local manufacture and possession of plastic bags.

But enforcing the law took time, as legislators, plastic-bag manufacturers and users discussed alternatives to the ban, including recycling systems. The suggestions never came to fruition. Six years later, the National Environment Management Authority decided to enforce the earlier ban.

Plastic bags are still a common sight in some parts of the country, Nabukenya says, because of poor waste-management practices among users.

In 2010, the amount of mismanaged waste in Africa was an estimated 4.4 million metric tons, out of the global total of 32 million metric tons, according to a 2015 study published in Science magazine.

Recycling in Uganda occurs on a relatively small scale and is often facilitated by private companies and entrepreneurs.

Nabukenya is one of those entrepreneurs. In 2014, while the legality of plastic bags was still in question, Nabukenya, then a job-seeking university graduate, founded her small arts business, Njola Impressions.

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At her workshop in Namere, a village in the Wakiso district, Allen Nabukenya beats a piece of an old car tire to make it malleable.

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

“As a person who cares about the environment, I was touched by this lack of progress to save Mother Nature,” says the 25 -year-old.

In her first year of business, Nabukenya says, she made an average of 20 art pieces a month, from 1 metric ton of plastic bags, hundreds of car tires and thousands of plastic bottles. Over the years, she has employed 20 people who have helped her collect these items in Namere.

Jane Nakakande has been working for the young artist for nearly three years.

“Nabukenya will pay people to collect polythene for the products, which are great, by the way,” she says.

Nabukenya’s efforts extend to neighboring communities, Nakakande says.

Land-based waste is rampant in Mutungo, a high-density settlement southeast of Kampala, Nabukenya says, and very little is done to clear it.

“Industrial wastes are never absorbed in the soil easily,” she says. “They can take millions of years.”

The artist blames residents’ lack of knowledge. She says she teaches young people here about the importance of reusing and recycling, and she trains them to make household items from the waste found in the community.

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda to English.