More than six years after retailers started selling plastic bags to shoppers, the government is still not collecting this money as was the original arrangement. It also remains unclear how the accumulated money would be recovered when the collection starts.
At a conservative estimate, Keneilwe Moseki, the CEO of Somarelang Tikologo, the environmental group which spearheaded the levy initiative, suggests that the money raised from this initiative runs into “hundreds of thousands of pula.” She laments the fact that the levy has been derailed from its original purpose.
“The levy was meant to benefit communities but it is now going into the pockets of businesspeople. Our recommendation to the government was that the money would go into the National Environment Fund and be made available to CBOs [community-based organisations] to fund conservation programmes in their respective communities,” Moseki says.
The Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism (MEWT) would have been helpful in clarifying this issue but more than two weeks after questions were submitted to it in writing, the ministry’s public relations department has not provided answers despite its promise to “get back to you soon.”
On account of environmental concerns, the government introduced the levy in order to reduce the use of plastic bags. Beginning June 18, 2007, Botswana shoppers began paying between 15 and 25 thebe for the bags they get from supermarkets. Currently, some shops charge as much as 50 thebe for a bag. The levy followed the introduction of the Plastic Carrier Bags and Flat Bags Specification by the Botswana Bureau of Standards. The law came into force on May 12 and requires shops to use bags of a thickness of not less 24 microns.
BOBS developed the bags’ standard upon request from MEWT which had decided that unlike thin bags, thicker ones – like those shoppers get from Woolworths – would be put away for reuse and that would help reduce littering. In terms of the plastic bag law, the marking, on both the bags and consignment slips must include the name of the manufacturer, importer or distributor and country of origin. Markings must be in Setswana or English. The standard does not cover bin liners, primary packaging as well as bread, refuse and household plastic bags. Ensuring that shops comply with the law is the responsibility of BOBS.
The government made the decision to regulate the plastic bag market in 2005, joining countries, such as Denmark, Italy, Ireland, and South Africa. This was a result of successful lobbying by Somarelang Tikologo which had been advocating for the use of thicker, reusable bags as far back as 1997. Parliament passed the plastic bag amendment to the Waste Management Act in August 2006 and the new law was implemented the following year. However, the money that should have funded environmental initiatives is only lining the pockets of businesspeople because the relevant collection structures within the government system have not been set up.
When she enquired from the Department of Waste Management about progress being made in that regard, Moseki says that she was assured that a committee that would work out the collection modalities had been formed. However, it has yet to start working. Moseki rejects the suggestion that her group may have put pressure on the government to introduce the levy when it did not have adequate structures in place to collect it.
“We only raised awareness about the extent of the problem. Plastics bags were everywhere – on the streets, on trees – everywhere. We made a representation to the government that there was need to put measures in place to combat the problem and along the way, also shared a lot of information with the government. Officers from the ministry took a lot of documents from our office which they used to set up the committee I told you about,” she says.
Moseki has also formed the view that the issue is not getting the same attention and urgency that has been lavished on the Alcohol Levy Fund.
“The same collection methods used for alcohol can be used for plastic bags,” she says.
Her disappointment notwithstanding, Moseki is happy that the introduction of the levy has helped curb the use of plastic bags quite significantly.