Editorial Comment: EMA needs to think through anti-litter strategy Plastic bag

One of the latest moves by the Environmental Management Agency is to start again the process of banning plastic carrier bags in shops and supermarkets, yet in Zimbabwe this is hardly a problem and there are a lot of other littering and pollution issues that need a far higher priority.

Almost all of these plastic bags bought in Zimbabwe, and the switch to forcing shops to charge for them was a sensible move, are recycled. Some are reused for shopping, and most end their days as a rubbish bag, neatly bundling household garbage for the day when a truck might come past and collect them. Without such bags a lot of our littering and garbage dumping would be significantly worse.

Garbage dumping and littering are still serious problems across Zimbabwe, despite campaigns and despite efforts to change the national culture from one that tolerates littering, or at least allows each one of us to drop litter if not other people, to one that frowns so heavily on the practice that it simply stops.

When he took office, President Mnangagwa started the monthly clean-up day, which was not meant to sort out the littering by cleaning up once a month but more to get people to start thinking about not making the mess in the first place. Covid-19 lockdowns make it difficult to have large community gatherings to pick up litter, but certainly do not stop people keeping their own verges clean and even more importantly not dumping their litter on other people’s verges. This should be something we do automatically, as decent human beings, without having the Head of State giving us a monthly reminder.

Part of the problem is the shortage of functioning garbage trucks in Harare and other cities. Instead of keeping their garbage neatly bagged waiting for collection many people simply take it to the nearest open space and dump it.

As part of anti-litter campaign a lot of businesses came forward and put up public waste containers, with a standard design that someone had thought through and was a significant improvement on what we had seen before. The donors naturally put their advertisement on the side, which was fair enough. The shortage of garbage collections means these are not emptied as often as they should be, so the overflow.

Agreed the councils should be doing better, but sitting in a sea of garbage as some sort of protest against municipal inefficiency really defies reason. Some householders sort out the problem well, carefully compressing their rubbish into large plastic bags and tying these, keeping them in their yard so stray dogs and scavengers cannot rip and raid them, until they hear the horn of the garbage truck on one of its occasional visits. Others litter.

The EMA needs to campaign for households to be more sensible, rather than try and ban just about the only bag that most will use to contain their garbage. If people wanted to be really sensible they could also minimise just how much garbage they produce. For a start many could dig a ditch in their garden for the organic rubbish, the cabbage leave and carrot tops and the like, and compost these, leaving just the inorganic rubbish to bag.

When one looks at the litter that tends to accumulate along verges and in the drains of most cities, it is very clear that supermarket bags are simply not included.

What forms the bulk of the litter are the packaging of takeaways, empty plastic bottles, cans, empty packs that once contained snacks, smashed glass bottles, cigarette boxes and odd little bits of disgusting looking and almost unidentifiable waste.

A few years ago there was some advance when expanded polystyrene containers were banned on health grounds. Unfortunately most replacements were polyethylene terephthalate, normally abbreviated PET, and this is pretty indestructible hence its usefulness for temporary but hygienic food and drink containers. A few chose cardboard, which has the advantage that when dumped it eventually rots, but the termites and other creatures who eat cardboard can take their time to convert the boxes to soil. There are things the EMA could be doing. One policy, that has worked in the handful of countries that have tried it, is to have a modest deposit on all drink cans and PET bottles. These cannot be reused but by giving them value people do gather them up to claim the deposit back.

To some degree these are already recycled for scrap, but that process could be made more complete with a deposit system.

The problem of takeaway containers, chip packets and empty drink sachets cannot be solved that way, so once again we are back to the campaigning and, perhaps just as important, enforcement of our by-laws. Littering is an offence, yet a majority of the population are happy to be criminals and are never caught.

It is possible to change cultures. Those who visit Namibia are usually astounded that there is simply no litter. Even tourists who sometimes drop a bit of litter are confronted by a Namibian who carefully explains “we do not do that here, so pick it up”.

And this is done without the sort of enforcement seen in, say, Singapore where dropping a matchstick can lead to a heavy fine. Namibian towns still have street sweepers, since the country is largely desert and semi-desert and so someone needs to sweep away the sand, but that is all they sweep up.

The EMA will find there is no magic formula for reducing litter except by getting people not to litter in the first place. Cleaning up later can help but a lot of people dislike cleaning up after others who simply do not care.

This anti-litter effort has to be complemented by other programmes, such as ever more verge-side and pavement litter bins, more frequent garbage collection and enforcing the anti-litter laws. Banning just about the only bag most people use to collect garbage is not really a solution.

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