7 Days in a Tanzanian Prison

It’s just over 2 weeks since Tanzania introduced a ban on plastic carrier bags and there isn’t a single one in sight. The law is fiercely enforced – it is not just illegal to manufacture, sell or distribute plastic bags – it is actually illegal to possess one! So just as you wouldn’t want to be caught with a minuscule quantity of weed or crack, you also don’t want to be found in possession of anything that resembles a plastic carrier bag.

Violation of the law carries hefty penalties. Manufacturing or selling plastic bags carries a fine of 1 billion Tanzanian Shillings (about £350,000) and a 2 year sentence, whilst personal possession leads to a fine of 200,000 Tanzanian Shillings (about £70 – the average monthly wage) and a 7-day prison sentence.

In preparation for the implementation of the law, Tanzanians were instructed to surrender plastic bags in their possession to government offices and immigration departments quickly published guidelines for foreign visitors. In particular, they referred to the small zip-seal bags distributed at airports to store toiletries in hand luggage as a potential major pitfall. Before leaving the plane, on arrival in Tanzania, visitors should remove their toiletries and leave the little plastic bags on the plane.

Tanzania is the 34th African country to introduce this policy – yet another example of where poor, developing countries put extravagant, excessively-polluting wealthy nations to shame. In fact, it makes the UK policy of charging 5p at the checkout for a single use plastic bag (which is hardly discouraging when you’ve spent £100 on your weekly shop), both idiotic and pathetic. Imagine if you had to pay the average monthly UK wage of £2,465 for a plastic bag?

Having returned to Tanzania last week, you can notice the difference immediately. The streets are cleaner, locals are no longer burning piles of plastic waste (creating dangerous fumes) and a local industry of sewing cloth bags is burgeoning. There is life beyond plastic bags.

Of course, there’ve been a few hiccups. Locals are still figuring out how to transport fresh meat in cloth bags without blood dripping all the way home. But no doubt they will come up with something.

I hope this is but the first step in a new radical policy. Next on the list is plastic bottles (most Tanzanians drink tap water and soft drinks from glass bottles but it’s the foreigners who prefer the plastic bottles and rely on mineral water), straws and containers.

Oh yes, and the reason I’m talking about plastic bags (aside from the fact that I’m really impressed by the policy) and not the crazy antics of our young people at Kijana Kwanza is because our youth hostel is empty for a couple of weeks. The young people have returned to their villages to visit extended family for the holidays. No doubt they’ll be back soon to keep all of us entertained.

Mohammed S Mamdani