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Currently showing: Climate/natural disasters > Pollution

26 May 13 12:28

Rwanda has banned non-biodegradable plastic and hopes to become the first plastic free country in the world, but as this short documentary explains, the prohibition is raising several problems of its own:

How do we go about reducing our dependency on environmental contaminants, particularly when the alternatives may be more harmful? And why is it that the poorest nations are willing to rise to such challenges while global super powers prefer to pretend that nothing is happening?

Rwanda's plastic bag-free utopia

Not so long ago, Rwanda suffered from an all-too-familiar problem in Africa: billions of plastic bags choking waterways and destroying entire ecosystems. To fight this scourge of the environment...

Category: Climate/natural disasters: Pollution, Other

Location: Rwanda


Alicia Montoya - 27 May 2013, 9:51 p.m.

First, full disclosure: I think our use of plastic is out of control and largely unnecessary. New shampoo bottles every 250 milliliters? New water bottles every liter? Plastic bags everywhere we go... Single usage plastic is everywhere. In a trip to NY last year, I was shocked to even find some of my colleagues eating at the canteen our of take away plastic plates and cutlery.

But is all plastic bad? Hell no! For instance, medical devices made out of plastic perform nothing short of miracles thanks to smart polymers (e.g. check this story from yesterday's news on a 3D printed splint that saved a baby's life: The fact is plastic is lightweight, does not rust or rot, is reusable, helps lower transportation costs and conserves natural resources. No wonder it's so popular and ubiquitous!

But our over-reliance and misuse is causing huge environmental damage (more on my views on that in So what constitutes "good usage of plastics" and what "bad"? Where do you draw the line? Intuitively, I'd say single usage and over-packaging is unnecessary and should probably be taxed/banned, following successful initiatives to curb plastic bag demand and usage in several US cities.

I guess for me the question has to be, what's most sustainable long-term (socially, economically and environmentally)? Sounds like total bans like Rwanda could end up costing the economy more than the environmental benefits it brings? (Playing Devil's advocate here in the hopes one of you will challenge me!).

Jennifer Rodney - 28 May 2013, 8:01 a.m.

Thanks for sharing this Gavin. I understand that a total ban on plastic may not be THE answer and more research is clearly needed to find solutions that have real positive impact and are also financially sustainable, but wow, Rwanda gets major kudos in my book for at least TRYING something totally different and bold!

I'm also not saying that one thing has to do with the other, but I'm curious about role women in politics may have in terms of being open to straying from the status quo. As per the Guardian regarding women in in office: "Rwanda leads the way globally, being the first country in the world to have a majority of women in parliament with 56%. Women hold 45 of the 80 seats in the lower house, and nine of the 26 in the upper house. The country introduced a 30% quota as part of its post-genocide constitution." (full article here: and more here:

Gavin Montgomery - 28 May 2013, 9:54 a.m.

I suspect that they are also helped by having a relatively new constitution which is consequently geared towards modern concerns. We've seen something similar in South Africa, where for example the constitution we introduced in 1994 was successfully invoked to legalize gay marriage in 2005 (only the second country outside of Europe, after Canada, to do so) despite strong traditional and religious opposition. In Rwanda, article 49 of the 2003 constitution states:
"Every citizen is entitled to a healthy and satisfying environment.
Every person has the duty to protect, safeguard and promote the environment. The State shall protect the environment.
The law determines the modalities for protecting, safeguarding and promoting the environment."
That means that there is a robust mandate in law that environmental groups and politicians can invoke to drive through legislation. It is hardly surprising that modern regulatory structures are better capable of addressing the concerns of today than legacy structures developed to meet the needs of people who, for example, kept slaves and burned witches.

Openminds Swiss Re - 31 May 2013, 12:45 p.m.

The article in Rwanda's Constitution that says "Every person has the duty to protect, safeguard and promote the environment" is amazing! Throws up all kinds of legal questions. e.g. Am I breaking the law when I pollute / dump garbage / plastic in public spaces, for instance?

But the one about the State is even better!! So what can Rwandans do if the State decides to engage in environmentally harmful activities? And could we as global citizens take them to an International Tribunal to be judged?

Alicia Montoya - 1 Jun 2018, 6:28 a.m.

Just went looking for the original video as this topic came up. The video's accessible here:

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