There was a mixed bag of measures last week from Minister of Environment, Water and Climate Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri to prevent litter and unsightly dumping, some very good and some, we think, a bit hasty.
Some of the measures are long overdue. Expanded polystyrene containers for takeaways are a proven nuisance, causing not only unsightly litter that does not decompose, but also blocking drains. The minister’s proposal to ban these and we hope all other plastic containers for takeaways, in six months is therefore worthy of support.
Of course, people selling takeaways will switch to paper and cardboard, as some have done already. And people buying takeaways will continue to throw them into the streets. But at least these materials do decompose in time. The immediate litter problem will not be solved by the switch, but the longer term environmental damage will be far less.
The second proposal, to insist on a deposit on all beverage containers, is again something that makes sense. This can be set at a realistic level, not too high as to deter sales, but high enough to make it worthwhile for someone to collect empty bottles and cans and cash them in.
For decades most beverages came in reusable glass bottles with a deposit that was roughly the same as the contents. Most people took these empties back when buying new bottles. The system worked well.
Over the last 15 years, and especially since 2009, canned drinks and drinks in PET bottles dominate sales, to the extent that some supermarkets and shops no longer sell the glass bottles. And the cans and PET bottles are just dumped everywhere. With a modest deposit, 5c even might be enough, some will return their containers, but even if people still throw them into the streets there will be those willing to collect them and collect the deposits.
Countries, even rich countries like Japan, that have tried the scheme find that it does work. There is a commercial market for empty cans, scrap aluminium having a decent value, and scrap polyethylene terephthalate (usually abbreviated PRT) being the raw material for not just new bottles and containers, but also for terylene and dralon fabrics. So those setting up the deposit and collection systems will not lose out and may possibly pick up some loose change.
Banning recharge cards for mobile phones we think is grossly overreacting. These small cards are made of card, so they do rot, that is biodegrade, eventually, and are the source of income for tens of thousands of Zimbabweans wanting to earn a living legally.
Considering that we want people to switch to cardboard and paper takeaway boxes and paper bags instead of plastic bags, it seems odd to zoom in on a product that is already biodegradable. We urge the minister to rethink this one. If she wishes to go after a small environmentally polluting item, there are better targets, starting with the chemically-sodden plastic fibres of cigarette butts that smokers should carry home and dispose of properly.
Disposable nappies are a difficult subject. To give almost all parents their due these are rarely dumped as litter, but do form a significant part of landfill at dump-sites. Every country has to deal with the problem, as the old cloth nappies have disappeared in less than a generation.
As the technology and usually the nappies, are imported it seems unfair to penalise the Zimbabwean suppliers. But the ministry must make it clear that it expects these same Zimbabwean suppliers to use the latest technologies that are already cutting back on the environmental impact of this ultimate convenience item, and the ministry itself needs to keep abreast of international trends and to ensure our suppliers follow them.
This is something where Zimbabwe is too small a market to take the lead, but it needs to be right behind the leaders as they force the major manufacturers to devise ways of minimising environmental damage.
Finally, we agree with the minister that enforcing the quite adequate laws we already have on littering and dumping would help. These are not being enforced, and have never been enforced, but if even 10 percent of litterbugs were fined the $20 we expect the litter problem would die down very fast. Gaining the co-operation of the police will be hard, since most officers do not consider littering a major crime and prefer to concentrate on other areas, but even a low-level assault on littering would produce good results.