Sometimes you may find them hidden in underwear or coiled tightly around a smugglers arm, and they are not narcotics or any illegally mined diamonds that are being smuggled across the border into Rwanda. But they are in the eyes of the Rwandan border guards just as bad. The offending contraband is plastic bags and the Rwandan government sees them to be just as bad as drugs.
Border officials are always on the lookout for illegal plastic bag smuggles. That is because in Rwanda it is illegal to import, produce, use or sell plastic bags and even plastic packaging. There are only a couple of specific exceptions for industries such as hospitals or pharmaceuticals. This is a nation that is part of around 40 in the world that has banned, restricted or taxed the use of plastic bags.
However, Rwanda’s approach is by far the most aggressive. Traffickers caught with any illegal plastics can be liable for hefty fines or even prison sentences. They will also be shamed and forced to make a public confession, along with an apology. Smugglers can receive up to six months in prison, but any executives of companies caught producing plastics can be given a year long prison sentence. Stores have even been shut down for wrapping bread in cellophane.
Rwanda sees plastic bags as a global issue, they take hundreds of years to degrade and are massively blamed for clogging the oceans and killing marine life. Kenya has also put in place a punishment for people selling or importing plastics. Rwanda’s main concern is that plastics are a source of flooding and also stop crops from receiving enough rainwater when the soil is littered with plastics.
And the zero tolerance policy appears to be paying off well, the streets of Kigali the nation’s capital are extremely clean. Densely populated areas are virtually spotless and citizens are required once a month to partake in a giant neighborhood cleaning effort – even the president partakes.
Not to mention that plastic bag vigilantes are everywhere, from airports to villages. And these informants tip off the authorities about suspected sales or use of plastic.