The Gambia – A hasty ban on the use of plastics?

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The Gambian authorities have made good their promise to ban the importation, manufacture and use of all plastic bags (without any exception) with effect from 1st July. Of course it has been generally agreed that plastic bags are a big environmental hazard, especially in Africa where people do not seem to have the attitude of throwing rubbish into rubbish bins, apparently because in most places, the bins are not even available. However, implementing such a measure like the ban on the use of plastic bags required a thorough study and implementation in phases rather than an abrupt stop like what seems to have happened in the Gambia. It certainly makes no economic sense to impose a complete ban on the use of plastics without enough public sensitization as well as thinking about an alternative.

While it would not be quite difficult to replace plastic bags used for shopping with paper bags, but there are certain trades such as water bottling and the sale of chilled food items that cannot be replaced by ordinary paper. Therefore, the authorities at the National Environmental Agency should have thoroughly studied all the possible negative impact as well as the implications the imposition of the ban would have had on both the society and the economy before implementing it. It is just not enough for them to rely on the power and authority given to them by law to carry out such a measure without considering those negative implications.

One can imagine the chaos the ban has caused in the society, particularly amongst the petty traders and those in the informal sector, many of whom rely on plastic products to carry out their businesses. It is therefore not a surprise that certain businesses have come to a complete halt, apparently because they have not yet had any alternative to the use of plastic products to carry out their business. It is a similar situation with the manufacturers and importers of plastic products, some of whom have been compelled to lay off their employees, thus causing a serious negative impact on the economy as well as a surge in the level of unemployment.

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Indeed, this is even very likely to cause an exodus in the few foreign investors still left in the country as well as discourage those with plans to invest in the country. There is for instance this case of a foreign investor who has just established a water bottling plant somewhere up-country which was scheduled to start operations before the end of July, but suddenly, with the ban on the use of plastic bags, the gentleman is confused as he has no idea what alternative he should use to bottle the water. One can therefore imagine the frustration he is presently going through after investing his money in the business. It is a similar scenario with the many water bottling plants dotted all over the country.

One would therefore wonder whether the NEA or whoever was responsible for such a drastic action ever considered such negative implications on the economy and the society at large.

While Senegal is also in the process of enacting a similar law, but in their own case, they have assigned the experts to thoroughly study the implications on both the economy and the society and come up with suitable alternatives. In their own case also, they do not intend to impose a complete ban at once but in different stages while they search for suitable alternatives to the various types of plastic products in use.

Therefore, considering that the Gambia is almost completely surrounded by Senegal and Senegal is yet to impose a ban, one would wonder whether the NEA officials ever thought of the possibility of the wind blowing plastic bags across the border from Senegal and thus negate virtually all their efforts in cleansing the country of plastic bags.

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It is a well known fact that plastic is much cheaper than paper and the fact that the Gambia does not have paper production facilities means importing large quantities of paper to meet the needs of the shoppers as well as those who utilize the product. Can anyone the import bill being able to accommodate such an increase? Let us hope that the economists considered all that and advised the authorities accordingly.

One can also wonder how many of the petty traders who used to sell their wares in plastic bags can now afford the paper bags. Therefore, what is likely to happen is that people who used to sell food items, for instance, in plastic bags would tend to resort to using unhygienic materials to wrap the food, thus exposing their clients to health hazards.

It is therefore extremely important that our political leaders always carefully consider the implications of all their actions and consult with the people at every level rather than relying on their power and authority to make certain decisions.

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