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Nation awaits June 1 to say bye to plastic bags

WITH June 1 round the corner, Tanzanians are waiting for smooth implementation of a ban on the use of plastic carrier bags.

The bags are found in every corner of Tanzania and practically in all households. The government is confident and believes implementation will be smooth.

Authorities in the Vice-President’s Office and more so in the National Environment Management Council (NEMC) are finalising details on how to go about the sensitive issue.

Correspondent PETER KEASI who has been closely following events as they unfolded reports…

People who listened to the Director General of the National Environment Management Council (NEMC), Dr Samuel Gwamaka, the other day when he talked about environmental impact assessment for sustainable development may have appreciated that he was discussing a subject with relevance to the predicament Tanzania finds herself in.

Tanzania badly and urgently needs successful implementation of the ban on carrier plastic bags. The ban takes effect on Saturday, June 1, 2019.

As he discussed the subject, Dr Gwamaka summoned all his oratory abilities to convey to his audience the weight of environmental impact.

He said: “environmental impact usually carries with it heavy price tags as property and lives are damaged beyond full compensation and repair.” Littering environment with unwanted plastic bags is a terrible environmental impact, just like toxic industrial discharge.

The difference is that many people become furious, and rightly so, when they witness or are victims of industrial effluent but do not easily decode the plastic bag discharge on environment.

Few people know or care to know that the bags they dump on their farms or throw on a neighbour’s plot do not easily rot. Even far less people internalise or know that experts associate the bags with causes of cancer otherwise less and less people would set fire the plastic waste to burn charcoal in their stoves or fuel wood.

So plastic bags crudely damped on Tanzania’s environment carry with them heavy price tags. When they clog storm water canals and storm waters flood houses and farms property is destroyed, sometimes beyond full compensation and repair.

When the bags get into wells, rivers, lakes and oceans water is polluted and environment assaulted. When the bags are burnt and toxic fumes breathed in, lives could be damaged beyond full repair.

Consequently, one would argue that the ban has nothing malicious behind it. The government has banned manufacture, importation and use of plastic carrier bags.

This is because littering environment with unwanted plastic bags is an attack on environment, and Dr Gwamaka said this planet has been a victim of many attacks, including disposal of plastic bags.

He used the occasion to explain that earthquakes and hurricanes are examples of natural attacks on the planet, but he also said there are unnatural and man-made attacks such as wars, explosions, pollution, chemical spills and land degradation.

Unwanted plastic bags, when anyhow thrown away, pollute environment and degrade land; hence the logic behind the ban. NEMC unique task in ensuring the ban is properly and effectively executed, using its seven zonal offices countrywide.

It is the agency that must use the Environmental Management Act (EMA) 2004 to protect environment. Dr Gwamaka says-section 7 of the act emphasises on promoting the enhancement, protection, conservation and management of the environment.

He explains that the government gave mandate and trusted the council to ensure integrity of the environment for the current and future generations.

“Measures to protect the environment will help ensure people’s health and livelihood as well as business sustainability,” he explained. In carrying out the task on this particular issue, EMC will work with local governments and regional administration. NEMC will work with districts in identifying areas, where plastic bags will be properly and safely kept or destroyed.

NEMC has the expertise, albeit insufficient, on varied aspects of toxic materials and their short and longterm effects.

The government is very optimistic. On Monday, May 27, 2019, the Vice-President, Ms Samia Hassan, reiterated that the government ban is effective June 1 and emphasized that there will not be extension.

She also repeated the government’s position that authorities must ensure orderly implementation of the ban by rallying people, to embrace the ban because eradication of the bags is in the interests of people’s health, first and foremost, and in the interests of Tanzania’s healthy environment.

Only a healthy environment can attract investments of all kinds; only a healthy environment can support sustainable development. The Vice-President called for people’s cooperation.

A week earlier, Minister of State in the Vice- President’s Office (Union and Environment), January Makamba, had also called for organized implementation of the ban.

“The government does not anticipate use of excessive force or chaotic episodes in implementing this ban. Essentially culprits will be fined. For example a person carrying the banned bag will be fined 30,000/- or jailed for seven days or both.

Do not search people’s suitcases or houses in search of banned bags,” the minister counseled. Mr Makamba said chaos could mar the government’s good intention on the issue, and he asked people to remain positive on the ban.

He said use of plastic carrier bags was a relatively new development. For three decades after independence in 1961, he argued, the carriers were not in use in Tanzania.

The Vice-President was right in calling for people’s cooperation because without public cooperation, it is hard to distinguish innocent users of the bags, after the ban, from obstinate culprits.

She also called for speedy decisions on matters relating to the implementation of the ban. For example why should it take long for an institution to say yes or no on an application from an entrepreneur who wants to produce alternative bags?

People deliberately delaying to make decisions, are undermining smooth implementation of the ban, and there should be no mercy on them. There might be pros and cons on the ban for those fond of debate.

But debate, healthy as it may be, does not eliminate the ban or consequences for its violation. Rationale has to prevail. Under the present circumstances and the level of Tanzania’s development, there is no option to total ban on carriers.

Well before the ban, the government, environmental advocates and other stakeholders fought for the day when Tanzania would be free from unmanaged disposal of unwanted plastic bags.

It would not be wise to casually reduce the ban to a triviality, or politicise the issue, because some people might be led into believing that they could use the bags and nothing would happen.

Yes, something will happen. Once you are caught and deemed stubborn, you will be declared a culprit; you will be charged and fined or be fined and then jailed! The adage goes: “Ignorance is no defence before the law.”

People must listen to authorities and refrain from taking seriously ‘street barristers’ or ‘village barristers’ who might confuse them on the ban. Their misplaced arguments cannot shield a person from prosecution, conviction and punishment.

The regulations made under the EMA 2004 stipulate heavy penalties for makers, importers, exporters, sellers and users of the carriers. The arguments of the ‘barristers’ would never shelter a culprit from the penalties.

The implementing agency, if you like, is the government but executing agency is NEMC. Logic seems to suggest that NEMC has to work with local governments at the grassroots level because that is where innocent or even ignorant users of bags are.

NEMC will naturally work closely with village governments and the urban ‘serikali za mitaa’ in sending the right message. NEMC must identify community- based organizations with which to work.

Generally, CBOs, like religious institutions, are trusted by ordinary Tanzanians. They are likely to be appropriate institutions to tell people about emerging investment or entrepreneurial opportunities in making alternative carrier bags that are friendly to environment.

NEMC would then intervene and link such people to other institutions like the Tanzania Investment Centre, Small Scale Industries Organisation (Sido), and financial institutions.

NEMC should be categorical on persons or properly constituted open tribunals to try and punish culprits. Elaborate guidelines and openness will stave off victimisation, nepotism and other vices.

One would hope TRA receipts would be issued for the fines collected, and money will be fully accounted for. Implementation of the ban should not open floodgates for corrupt officials at all levels.

Banning of the plastic carriers is not unique to Tanzania. Mr Makamba said 60 countries have already banned plastic carrier bags in defence of people’s health and environment.

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Author: Correspondent PETER KEASI

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