Living without plastic bags — the Democratic Republic of Congo is paving the way

Market woman selling maniok flour in Goma (Innocent Buchu, 2018).

While Switzerland consumes three times as much plastic as other European countries, DR of Congo as the largest Central African country passed a ban on the production, import, sale, and use of plastic bags in the summer of 2018. How is this feasible in Goma, the war-torn provincial capital in Eastern Congo? I was there in the summer of 2018, shortly after the plastic ban was introduced, and was able to watch its implementation.

Environmental protection in a conflict zone?

The city of Goma borders Rwanda and has made it into the headlines during the last 25 years due to flight from, and displacement caused by, the Rwandan genocide, two wars and various sieges, a volcanic eruption and several epidemics. For ten years, I have been conducting ethnographic fieldwork on urban everyday practices and conflict dynamics in this city.

“Goma propre” — communal work in Goma’s city centre at the slopes of the Nyiragongo volcano (Wassy Kambale, 2018).

Goma propre, or clean Goma, has long been a slogan in this eastern Congolese city. But clogged sewers, plastic waste in the streets and in Lake Kivu tell a different story. In July 2018, a government decree was passed prohibiting the production, import, trade, and use of plastic packaging. How does environmental protection work in such an unlikely place? Many people find the ban an effective strategy against dirt and environmental degradation. On the other hand, the ban is also viewed critically because of the lack of low-cost alternatives and lack of confidence in the government.

Voices from the market

Marché de Virunga in Goma’s city centre built on lava streams (Innocent Buchu, 2018).

On Goma’s largest market, the Virunga market, the ban seems to have prevailed four months after its implementation. There is already much less plastic waste in circulation. A market vendor confirms that she may still sell the remainder of plastic bags, but if the warehouse is empty, it is empty. She has already introduced new stocks of biodegradable bags but realizes that customers are buying fewer of these bags.

Another market vendor whose opinion I sought sells ndazi, deep-fried donuts. She is not enthusiastic about the plastic ban because her customers do not want to get their hands dirty and prefer to transport the donuts in plastic.

Expensive alternatives to plastic

Since the plastic ban was only implemented in July 2018, there are still no adequate alternatives except biodegradable bags or imported paper packaging, which cost a lot more.

Ni beyi kali,” that is a very high price, complain two domestic workers. While a plastic bag used to cost 50 Congolese francs (around three cents), they now cost around 500 Congolese francs. As a result, many people have to transport goods with their bare hands. For the two domestic workers, it’s an absurdity.

Community work against pollution

Instead of a plastic ban and the associated increase in the cost of replacement products, the two domestic workers would rather promote Salongo, or community work. Salongo was already established as a social institution under Mobutu’s dictatorship and was meant to get the inhabitants of the Congo (formerly Zaire) to join forces as a contribution to the nation. Above all, Salongo was a means to creatively deal with the state’s mismanagement and to work together for the benefit of the neighborhood. For several years, Salongo has once again been obligatory in Goma’s neighborhoods, and every Saturday from morning to noon, the neighbors work mainly against pollution and for more cleanliness on Goma’s streets.

Neighbors working together to get rid of plastic waste during Salongo in the neighborhood of Birere (Espoir Ngalukiye, 2018).

Also, Goma’s municipal administration perceives Salongo as an appropriate measure to raise environmental awareness among the population. Since the adoption of the plastic ban, the town hall has maintained an active dialogue with the various neighborhoods. In particular, the administrative representatives at the neighborhood level have taken on the task of informing the population through meetings or social media.

Back to the roots?

Handmade raffia bags at Virunga market (Silke Oldenburg, 2018).

Due to the lack of alternatives, the ban has not yet been strictly implemented and sanctions have not been imposed for non-compliance with the ban.

An administrative representative, however, expressed little empathy for the hitherto challenging introduction of the plastic ban: “Lex est lex” — law is law. For him and many others, the plastic ban offers a return to the traditional modes of transporting goods. He points to the example of his parents’ generation, who shopped at the market with bamboo shells and raffia baskets, which he classifies as sustainable.

This turn to traditional craftsmanship is embodied by two basket makers from the northeast of Goma. In a corner of the Virunga market, they stick to their old craft and weave beautiful baskets made of raffia using traditional techniques. These can fit several cooking pots, and the risk of leaking liquids is low. A basket weaver around 70 years of age is happy that she earns much more money today than she did a year ago. Even if she spends up to three days making a braided basket — and the price is therefore too high for many people — the elderly lady regards the plastic ban as a good turn.

Plastic waste as a challenge

Entrepreneur Joël Tembo Vwira agrees. Traditional craftsmanship as used in bamboo or raffia products is still important in the creation of containers capable of transporting goods today. These could, in his opinion, constitute suitable replacement products and strengthen local craftsmanship over imported goods.

Joël Tembo Vwira manages Goma’s first landfill site. The topic of waste management has been driving him from a young age, and he is well connected abroad thanks to his innovative ideas. A reusable water bottle is on his desk and he calculates how much money he can save by using it, while at the same time protecting the environment. He emphasizes that the reduction of waste and plastic products makes sense for those countries that have few technological options for recycling.

But Joël Tembo also adds thoughtfully that the ban on plastic bags is just the tip of the iceberg, and he points to the plethora of plastic bottles and commercial packaging, which are barely affected by the implementation.

No future for plastic

The reuse of plastic bottles is not a new phenomenon in Goma. With a near-absent formal economy in DR Congo, the people are trying their best to make ends meet. However, the improper reuse and resale of bottled water for palm oil, honey or water of low quality causes significant health problems, and cholera outbreaks are not unknown in eastern Congo. There are still few ideas for tackling the elimination of large commercial waste.

Nevertheless, Samuel Bamporiki of the Environmental Department remains optimistic: with a chuckle, he reports of a trader smuggling plastic bags in her underwear. This, he explains, is an indication that the message has arrived. The woman knew that plastic has no future in Goma.

Goma’s representative of the municipal environmental department, Samuel Bamporiki (Silke Oldenburg, 2018).

This text is a revised version of a contribution to radio SRF2 Kultur.

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