X Close

UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


Is a total ban of plastic bags good and inclusive? Lessons from Rwanda

By katerynatsybenko, on 24 September 2021

In June 2021, Ukraine adopted a law to ban plastic bags. The ban will be implemented in stages: in December 2021, bags up to 50 microns thick will be banned; on March 2022, bags 15 microns thick will be banned. Only very small thin bags for transporting fish, meat, ice will be allowed but for a limited period of time. Starting from January 1 2023, only biodegradable bags will be allowed. Similar bans have been imposed in other countries, such as Rwanda and the UK, and in the EU. Radical policies to ban plastic bags may improve environmental sustainability, but there can be unintended consequences. They should be anticipated and carefully planned for.

plastic bags in different colours at lanfill

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

The new Ukrainian law stipulates fines for using plastic bags: 1700-8500 UAH (45-215GBP, while 150GBP is a minimum salary) from December 2021, and 8500-34000 UAH (215-850 GBP) from March 2022.

As a public policy professional, I decided to bring attention to the case of Rwanda, where plastic bags were fully banned in 2005. It brought not only positive changes. Rwanda and Ukraine differ in terms of economic development, population and territory.  So, we might ask: why should we care about Rwanda’s experience? There is one mutual feature indicated in the last row – the level of corruption.

Ukraine, 2005 Ukraine, 2019 Rwanda, 2005 Rwanda, 2019
GDP (bln) 86 153.7 2.9 10.3
GDP per capita 1826 3659 331 820
GDP growth (%) 3 3.2 9.4 9.4
Population (m) 47.1 44.4 8.8 12.6
Territory (km2) 603,500 26 338
CPI 2.6 33 3.1 54

Source: World Bank

According to Transparency International, in 2005, Rwanda and Ukraine had a similar Corruption Perception Index (3.1 and 2.6 points). Now Ukraine has 33 points (scale changed, so it is equal to 3.3 in 2005). So, in terms of corruption, Ukraine is almost on the same level as Rwanda when the country introduced a ban on plastic bags. It means that it is valuable to learn the consequences of the ban in Rwanda, especially with the state of corruption, to predict potential consequences for Ukraine. Of course, political, economic, cultural, natural and other factors are crucial, and what happened in Rwanda might not necessarily happen in Ukraine. But I believe some moments in the Rwandan experience are definitely valuable to know.

The Rwandan government wanted to be the continental leader in implementing environmental policies, to be praised by the international community as “the cleanest”, to attract tourists and investors. In 2005 they imposed a total ban on importing and using plastics less than 100 microns thick. The government did not actively support the production of plastic bag substitutes (only one firm produces hand-woven baskets) and did not provide subsidies to companies that recycle plastic bags. Manufacturers of plastic bags needed to close their businesses. Strict penalties on plastic bag smuggling were introduced – up to six months in jail. As no alternatives for plastic bags were offered, they were smuggled into the country with bribes paid to police officers to avoid government punishment – as Rwanda is a small country, it is easy to smuggle goods from the neighbouring countries that do not have such strict rules. Also, people smuggle plastic bags to earn a living. They could earn USD 10, which was a weekly salary in Rwanda, on smuggling. As a result, Rwanda was recognized as a pioneer in fighting plastic in Africa, but the unpleasant social and economic consequences were huge.

Why did that happen? There were several reasons:

  1. The government acted very promptly with their policy; no transition period was offered;
  2. The government did not have consultations with either business or with citizens prior to adopting a policy;
  3. No valid alternatives to plastic bags were offered that would have been available to most citizens who are extremely poor;
  4. Companies that produce plastic bags were just made to close their business;
  5. No support for companies that lost revenues was offered.

What if we apply these reasons to the situation in Ukraine?
There is a 9-month transition period before the ban gradually comes into force which is definitely positive as manufacturers, supermarkets and consumers will have time to prepare. The law was first initiated in 2019. I could not find any evidence of the consultations with businesses or citizens (but I can assume they were in place at least unofficially).

The law does not contain any information about support, subsidies or anything that will be offered to producers of plastic bag alternatives. There is no mention of how biodegradable bags will be introduced. There is no mention of an awareness campaign or protection of citizens with lower salaries (in case of biodegradable packaging will significantly increase the cost of the product). There is no mention of the companies which produce plastic bags – the ban may impact their need in the workforce. The plastics sector in Ukraine is definitely not small. The only chapters in the law are about the ban, requirements of biodegradable bags, who controls that and what are the fines.

Considering what is in the law, Rwanda’s experience, the fact that the level of corruption in Ukraine is like those of Rwanda in 2005, I can conclude that the following risk exists with the plastic bags ban: Bags may be just banned, and alternatives may be too expensive, so only richer people who can afford to be environmentally friendly will buy them. Plastic bags may be circulating illegally, and new corruption risks may occur. Similar to those which occurred during quarantine  – nightclubs needed to close early and some of them chose to pay a bribe to open longer hours.

What is the other countries experience? The EU started to gradually ban plastic bags from July 2021. But the EU will include stakeholders in the decision-making process. Here is the citation from the European Commission website: “The Commission will work with packaging producers to help them be more sustainable and circular (e.g. life cycle assessment methodology) and to incentivise and award innovation and smart design choices (e.g. through more harmonised and efficient Extended Producer Responsibility schemes)”.

In the UK, plastic bags are not banned completely. Instead, people are actively discouraged from using them: it is not easy to find them in supermarkets and people are encouraged to buy sustainable bags.

My point is that we can not just ban plastic bags because they are bad. We need to design a smart policy process on how to ban them without harming anybody. This can include integrating anti-corruption measures, stakeholder involvement, bringing inclusiveness to the agenda, supporting producer supply chains for biodegradable bags to ensure supply and awareness campaigns for citizens. My hope is that during the 9-month period, all preparatory work to ensure a smooth transition to a new policy and reduction of corruption risks will be done.

Leave a Reply