The Kingdom of Eswatini takes a monumental leap towards sustainability with its upcoming total ban on single-use plastic carrier bags, starting December 1, 2024. This bold move not only targets plastic pollution head-on but also underscores the kingdom's dedication to environmental stewardship and its Paris Agreement commitments, argues Musa Ndlangamandla, the Executive Director of Yibutse Green Action.

In recent years, global attention has increasingly turned towards the urgent need for environmental sustainability, driven by escalating concerns over climate change and environmental degradation. Amidst this backdrop, the Kingdom of Eswatini has emerged as a trailblazer with its decision to implement a total ban on single-use plastic carrier bags, effective in six months’ time. Government is going a step further by phasing out all Styrofoam, also known as Expanded Polystyrene products – think the white packaging for take away food - within a year.

The decision was announced by the Minister of Tourism and Environmental Affairs Jane Mkhonta-Simelane on Wednesday 22 May 2024. The transition period leading up to November 2024 is meant to facilitate a seamless shift for manufacturers and retailers towards eco-friendly options like cloth, paper, and durable tote bags.

This monumental move underscores Eswatini's commitment to combatting plastic pollution and promoting eco-friendly practices in alignment with its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. Eswatini aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 47% by 2030.

This ambitious target includes reducing emissions from the waste sector, which is closely linked to the management of plastic waste. Single-use plastic bags have long plagued the country’s landscape, contributing significantly to pollution, threatening wildlife, and posing health risks to emaSwati. As correctly observed by Minister Mkhonta, global research has confirmed that microplastics are one of the leading causes of some of the emerging health risks such as cancer and endocrine disruption.

At a traditional wedding in Mpholonjeni, outside Mbabane recently, tiny plastic particles were discovered in the slaughtered cow's carcass, highlighting how livestock inadvertently consume plastic bags, mistaking them for food. These harmful plastic particles, known to be carcinogenic, are now making their way into people's food, posing significant health risks.

Adding to the concern, a report from the New York Post in August 2023 revealed that microplastics commonly found in food packaging and paints have been detected in human heart tissue for the first time. If these findings don't reinforce the critical importance of the ban, nothing will. Furthermore, single-use plastic bags have long been a symbol of environmental harm in the country, clogging waterways, endangering livestock, and contributing to the global plastic crisis.

A short tour of Kwaluseni, Logoba, Mhlaleni, Mncitsini, Nkoyoyo, and almost all parts of the country, leaves no doubt that single-use plastic litter has reached disaster proportions in the country. Recognising these profound challenges, the government has taken decisive action through robust legislative measures under the Environmental Management Act of 2002 and the Control of Plastic Bags Regulations, 2021.

This regulatory framework not only mandates the ban but also sets the stage for a comprehensive transition towards sustainable alternatives. The government has a meticulous plan for the ban's implementation, highlighting its anticipated environmental and economic impacts. This ban extends across all sectors, compelling retailers, supermarkets, manufacturers, and vendors to cease the sale or provision of single-use plastic bags.

This directive underscores Eswatini's commitment to environmental stewardship and the cultivation of a low-carbon economy. The government should be commended for embarking on proactive measures by announcing extensive public engagement plans for the upcoming ban on single-use plastic carrier bags.

Engaging emaSwati in discussions surrounding the ban seeks not only to educate and raise awareness but also to harness collective wisdom in exploring innovative solutions that mitigate environmental impact while promoting economic resilience. Effective public engagement increases compliance with the ban, ensuring its success and positive impact on the environment. When people are well-informed and supported, they are more likely to adhere to new regulations.

Meanwhile, Gcina Dladla, Executive Director of Eswatini Environment Authority, lauded the ban as a pivotal step towards sustainability, emphasising its broader implications beyond plastic reduction. "Eswatini's bold decision to ban single-use plastic carrier bags is a landmark step in our journey towards a sustainable future.

This policy is not just about reducing plastic pollution; it is about transforming our economy and society for the better." Dladla acknowledged concerns about job losses and economic impacts but framed the ban as an opportunity for innovation and economic diversification. "Our focus is on ensuring a smooth transition for businesses and workers.

We are committed to supporting the development of new skills and industries that will thrive in a sustainable economy." A prominent environmental and social justice activist, Khulekani Msweli, views the ban as a critical step forward. "This ban is a victory for all who care about our planet. It sends a powerful message that Eswatini is serious about combating plastic pollution and promoting sustainability." Meanwhile, transitioning from single-use plastic bags to eco-friendly alternatives is essential for the success of the ban.

Several materials can serve as viable substitutes. These include cloth bags, which are durable and reusable, and an excellent alternative to plastic bags. Paper bags are a viable option as they are biodegradable and can be recycled. In some countries, banana leaves turned into a natural fibre that is both biodegradable and strong, making it an ideal material for reusable bags.

Yibutse Green Action is alive to the fact that there could be some challenges in implementing the ban on single-use plastic bags and that achieving the targets set out in the NDCs will require coordinated efforts from the government, private sector, and civil society. The transition to alternative materials may pose economic challenges for businesses and consumers.

The government has pledged to support businesses in this transition, but continuous monitoring and assistance will be necessary. Moreover, ensuring widespread public compliance with the ban will require ongoing education and enforcement. Public awareness campaigns and engagement with community leaders are essential.

Developing the infrastructure for producing and distributing alternative materials could also be challenging. This includes support for local manufacturers and incentives for businesses to invest in eco-friendly alternatives. As Yibutse Green Action we believe that these challenges are not insurmountable and can be effectively dealt with through collaborative efforts from key stakeholders.

The country can also draw valuable lessons from global leaders like Rwanda and England as they have implemented successful bans on single-use plastic carrier bags. England introduced a 5 pence [E117] charge on single-use plastic bags in 2015, leading to an estimated 95% reduction in their use within major supermarkets. This policy aimed not only at reducing plastic waste but also at changing consumer behavior to favor reusable alternatives.

The move is a boost for the environment, tackles littering and challenges modern “throwaway culture.” Similarly, Rwanda's ban on plastic bags dates back to 2008, making it one of the earliest and most stringent bans globally. The country took a proactive stance to protect its environment and has since seen significant improvements in cleanliness and environmental health.