After Banning Some Plastic Bags, Debate Over Next Steps

A person from Sidi Hassine in the audience at a panel event in Tunis on March 3, 2020 on plastic waste speaks out about the hazardous waste dump in his neighborhood which has yet to be closed down years after an official decision to do so. Photo by Fadil Aliriza.

As a decree banning some types of bags goes into effect this month, many are looking for new steps to take to further reduce plastic waste.

“Banning plastic bags, this is a good thing, but at the same time we can go further. We have straws that are used everywhere, in restaurants. Same thing with plastic forks, knives, plates,” Oumayma Rejeb, secretary general of a group called Zero Waste that gives workshops on waste sorting and recycling, said at a panel event on Tuesday, March 3.

Just two days earlier, a partial ban on single-use plastic bags went into effect in accordance with decree No32, 2020. The decree defines these as bags that are less than 40 microns thick, meaning that thicker bags and those made from other materials may still be produced. Smaller plastic bags for produce and bread which are under 15 microns thick are also exempt from the law.

In effect, this hasn’t changed much yet. The decree only goes into effect in pharmacies and in “commercial centers” so far, with wider implementation expanding to all “producers, importers and bearers” on January 1, 2021. Large shopping malls had already stopped using plastic bags after an informal agreement was made between the Ministry of Environment and Local Affairs and the main chamber of commerce, UTICA, in 2015, according to an article in the Tunisian version of a report on plastic, entitled Plastic Atlas, recently released by the Heinrich Boll Foundation (HBS).

The author of that article entitled “Vers L’Interdiction Des Sacs Plastiques À Usage Unique En Tunisie,” (currently only available in print copy), Anis Guerfi, is also one of the authors of decree No32.

“I worked on the decree for three years. It’s true the law is easy to make but… it’s not as easy to find a solution in concert with all the stakeholders including UTICA, producers, consumers, the government,” Guerfi said at Tuesday’s panel event.

According to Nidhal Attia, one of the panelists and a program coordinator for the HBS Tunisia office which hosted Tuesday’s event, the prioritization of banning single-use plastic bags was partly because the scale of the problem is so large. Attia said that official figures put the number of bags used in Tunisia at 4.2 billion per year, or roughly 400 bags per Tunisian.

“This was too much because you find it everywhere,” Attia told Meshkal. The visual and environmental effects of this helped create urgency around reducing the number, he added.

Germany is the top user of plastics in Europe, a problem that organizers from the German HBS acknowledged in their opening remarks. Heike Löschmann, the director of HBS Tunisia office, used her opening remarks to highlight solutions to excessive plastic waste that all governments or individuals could take, such as reducing consumption, stopping all single-use plastics use and holding producers to account while promoting sustainable product design.

The event, which drew over 100 people, featured a lecture by a Griffins Ochieng Ochola who has worked with several non-governmental organizations in Kenya on environmental issues including plastic waste. Ochola described the outcomes of similar efforts to ban single-use plastic bags in Kenya. According to Ochola, the Kenyan government had made several attempts to ban such bags, including passing three separate laws between 2005 and 2011, all of which failed or were not enforced. It was not until 2017 that a ban was finally enacted with some effect after a major social media campaign succeeded in shifting public opinion around the issue.

Despite the ban, which carried steep fines and even jail time for violations, informal markets, particularly near border regions, continue to see the widespread use of single-use plastic bags. Alternative bags in Kenya also appear to pose environmental problems.

Jobs and Social Issues

One challenge to enacting a ban on plastic bags has been concerns over job losses at the factories that manufacture them. But according to Guerfi, only 920 jobs were directly linked to manufacturing plastic bags and those factories that produce them will largely be able to shift production to other types of so-called “biodegradable” plastic bags.

Guerfi was careful to note that the “biodegradable” moniker needs to be qualified. The bags designated as biodegradable under the law can only be composted under very specific industrial conditions, with high temperature and particular levels of oxygen.

“Biodegradable bags, you can’t just throw them in nature and say, it’s fine, its biodegradable,” Guerfi said.

In his article, Guerfi advocated “urgently introducing a collection system for biodegradable bags and setting up industrial composting units.”

Asked about the potential carbon, energy, or ecological impacts of such composting facilities, Guerfi responded that he was unsure but that he believes they don’t require a lot of energy. Others have found that compostable plastic processing is not cost effective, takes a long time, or is not operating as advertised.

Ahlem Hellali, a doctor and civil society activist who was a panelist at the event, explained that plastic pollution also creates serious negative health effects. She and others at the panel noted that humans on average ingest about five grams of plastic per week, equivalent to about an ATM card.

Ahlem Hellali (R) speaking at a panel event on plastic waste in Tunis, March 3, 2020 beside Oumayma Rejeb (C).

Hellali said one 2017 study had been carried out in Zaghouan in an industrial zone to measure the health effects of industrial plastic exposure among car-part manufacturers who work with the material, discovering that they have higher incidence of asthma and other respiratory illnesses than the general population. According to Hellali, that study was one of very few that exist on the issue in Tunisia.

One audience member expressed exasperation at not being able to find alternatives to plastic in her daily life.

“I came here because I’m interested in the topic of plastic. I already always pose the question to myself in my house. The question in my head is always how can I stop using plastic, but I can’t. There’s no alternative. Especially in the kitchen I use it a lot,” said an audience member who identified herself as Abir.

One panelist responded to Abir suggesting she could find alternatives by giving more attention to her consumption choices.

Another audience member, a young man who did not give a name, said that he wants the waste dump in his neighborhood of Sidi Hassine, one of the poorer neighborhoods in Tunisia, to be closed in accordance with an official decision to do so dating back to 2009.

“I wanted to use this opportunity while there are environmental activists here,” the man said. “2500 tons [of waste] come in every day uncontrolled. Some medical waste is coming in which is actually illegal. Slaughterhouse waste is coming in. The water table is being contaminated. 40 percent of it is plastic. It will have an environmental impact whether the dump continues or even if it is closed haphazardly.”

His comment drew applause as the event concluded.