MBALE – In 2022, Mr Israel Giduno and his wife driven by the desire to make money from fresh foods planted maize Tomatoes and beans along the banks of River Namatala.
For the lack of fresh food in Mbale City council had made Giduno drive for 45 minutes to get an organic tomato.
After planting these and some vegetables on their garden, the duo was written up for “gardening without a permit” by the city council’s authorities.
But unfortunately for this family, a large amount of plastic waste is obstructing their labor as they separate it from the soil first and prepare the field.
The gardens along the banks of river Namatala have been fertile but today they unable to raise up the harvest for domestic and commercial use because the soils have become infertile for plant growth.
And like any other places in Bugisu along the main rivers and streams, farming along the banks of Rivers is becoming a less reliable source of livelihood here because of an invasive pest infesting the soil: plastic bags.
Plastic bags [Kaveeras] are the most common type of packaging here and littering is also common and after careless disposal, plastic bags are buried in the soil, and it’s now taking a toll on the fertility of the land everywhere across Bugisu sub-region.
“It’s terrible. I find plastic materials everywhere I dig in my garden. There is one used plastic bottle and two used plastic bags in every square meter on my land,” Giduno says.
According to research conducted by the World Climate School’s Uganda chapter, more than 75% of used plastic bottles end up in gardens, landfills, lakes, and rivers, which is seriously damaging to the environment.
According to the Ministry of Water and Environment, all store purchases are packaged in polythene bags, and without proper disposal, plastic garbage can be seen everywhere and is becoming disastrous to urban and rural areas due to poor disposal practices.
Like other farmers, Giduno says that it is unfortunate that in Uganda, there is no law against the disposal of waste because when someone buys a soda or water in a plastic bottle, after drinking it, he simply throws it anywhere.
“Can you imagine most people who drink soda and water in taxis or private vehicles simply throw the used plastic bottles out the windows and if things continue at this rate, we will have nowhere to grow crops in the next 10 years or so,” Giduno said.
The main rivers across the country are choked with plastic bottles and other plastic waste, causing flooding that has displaced many.
Giduno spends hours with a hoe, a machete and a stick trying to unearth plastic bags that have become intertwined with the soil and prevented him from planting successful crops in his garden.
That morning he stood at the river pondering his next move only to see the river carrying Polythenes that included shopping bags, drinking water bottles, small plastic tops for various bottles, children’s pampers, pads, liquid wastes from homesteads that contaminated the natural waters in River Namatala.
“I used to get rid of weeds in the garden by manually uprooting them or digging them out, and my crops could grow well as a result of this but today the plague of plastic bags overrunning our gardens in the villages and towns have built up in the soil, becoming the bane of our land fertility,” he adds.
The inhabitants of Mt Elgon known for being traditional farmers, say the trading centres have been overrun with plastic bags and that local farmers, like Giduno, say plastic bags are having a direct impact on crop yield in gardens across the banks of all rivers affecting all farmers.
“Before, I could earn as much as Shs 600,000 from my crops along the banks of Namatala River a season but today, I only earn about Shs 260,000. The big drop in my crops garden yield is the worst disaster ever to befall me,” Giduno adds.
The impact of the waste on small-scale farmers can be devastating because across Bugisu sub-region and other districts that neighbour Bugisu, farmers say their crop yields are decreasing as the soil, clogged with plastic, loses its fertility.
Environmentalists explain that plastic [Kaveeras] litter prevents the flow of wastewater and many of the plastics end up in farmlands and gardens which affect the way crops grow because they block proper flow of water and air.
Mr Rashid Mafabi, the district environment officer says more than 80% of the plastic garbage in the trading centres is left uncollected and ends up in drainage channels, wetlands, natural water courses, undeveloped plots and on the roadside.
“And in most cases in rural areas, it is a sad story; plastic garbage is left to decompose on its own at the roadsides or town centres and buries itself into the soil,” said Mr Mafabi.
He explained that this is not to mention the toxic substances that are released into the soil when kaveeras decompose under sunlight but when burnt, these kaveeras also discharge toxic substance into the air, causing air pollution.
Mr Mafabi explains that there are staggering statistics on plastic pollution in Uganda with an estimate that at least 600 tonnes of plastics are consumed every day in Uganda and most of them are disposed off irresponsibly.
Like other environmentalists in the region, Mr Charles Wakube, the Mbale district Environment Officer is also concerned that people are sending tonnes of plastic into the soils each year, potentially affecting crops, livestock and human health.
“We continue to harm nature through irresponsible practices such as the indiscriminate use of plastics and the thoughtless disposal of plastic waste. This is one of the main causes of environmental degradation in our country,” said Mr Wakube.
He said uncontrolled use and insensitive way of disposing plastic is one of the major causes of environment degradation in the world today and in turn it will also degrade our lives.
An article by Frontiers in Environmental science magazine titled; Micro plastics as an Emerging Environmental Pollutant in Agricultural Soils: Effects on Ecosystems and Human Health says that plastic waste endangers human life, animals and the environment, if it is not well controlled and disposed off in a proper manner and that Pollution from plastics is less visible and therefore our decision makers or policy makers do not see it as a priority yet it is a silent’ killer.
It adds that Plastic waste is a real predator with slow killing and “did you that plastic takes 450 year to decompose completely? Yet when you move around most homesteads and gardens are littered with plastics including water and soda bottles and other forms of plastic,”.
And basing on this, environmentalists have urged the environmental regulatory authority (NEMA) to make faster strides towards implementing the ban on polythene bags which constitute a bigger portion of plastic waste.
Mr Mafabi says that with agriculture being the backbone of our economy, polythene bags do not only degrade our soil, but also endanger our animals that sometimes get entangled, or accidentally eat the polythene.
“And micro-plastics entering the human body through ingestion or inhalation can lead to an array of health implications, including inflammation, genotoxicity and oxidative stress, so we are not only talking about rendering soils infertile but also human beings,” said Mr Mafabi.
The wildlife charity WWF reported that pollution, emissions and clean-up costs of plastic produced in 2019 around the world could be about $3.7 trillion, this raises alarm about the amount of plastic entering the ecosystem.
Ms Sarah Bisikwa, the Manafwa district environment officer says that when plastics are burned, they emit toxic chemicals causing respiratory problems and that Uganda does not have any serious environment laws on burning plastics and the existing laws are never enforced.
She said that as environmentalists in the country, they are aware that environmental contamination by micro plastics is now considered an emerging threat to biodiversity, ecosystem functioning and soil ecosystems.
“Studies have found that potential of micro-plastics disturb vital relationships between soil and water, as well as having consequences for soil structure and microbial function,” said Ms Bisikwa 14 June.
Dr William Wogoire Dr. William Wogoire, the former director of National Coffee Research Institute in Kituza says soil is a non-renewable resource, vulnerable to further deterioration in its quality if government does now find ways of managing plastic rather than just dumping it anywhere.
Dr Wogoire warned that micro plastics in soils could have a long-term negative effect on the ecosystem and consequently reduction of crop yields.
David Duli, the country director World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said the dangers of deadly plastics are worth highlighting noting that plastics decrease soil water holding capacity, killing organisms hence leading to low crop production.
“Apparently we are seeing its negative impact in the environment and it is affecting our productivity and it will affect our health. We now need level of aggressiveness to fight this,” Mr Duli said.
WWF Uganda, a major stakeholder in the fight against environment degradation launched the earth hour campaign aimed at stopping the use of plastics.
Mr David Kureba, the coordinator of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists-NAPE, agrees with WWF that plastics are affecting productivity but worries that laws and regulations put in place to ban use of Kaveeras are not being implementated.
The National Environment Act, 2019 (Act 5 of 2019).
Ms Bisikwa says that despite the president’s assent to this Act, it appears that no efforts have been taken to put it into effect,”
She says that the variation in implementing bans on polythene bags is particularly stark in East Africa save for Rwanda which has attracted widespread praise for its environmental leadership. In Uganda and Kenya, despite bans being announced on separate occasions, implementation has remained a great challenge.
The harm to agriculture
Dr Lawrence Owere, the director Buginyanya Zonal Agricultural Research Development Institute [Bugizard] said when disposed, plastics degrade into smaller pieces, known as micro-plastics, which are ingested by the aquatic animals and livestock raising concerns over food supply.
He added that plastics also raise issues of plant health as plastic-contaminated soils had drainage problems, with water pooling on the surface.
“And further impacts include suffocating earthworms, which are widely considered a boon to farming because of their ability to aid decomposition, add organic nutrients to the soil and increase soil aeration,” said Dr Okware.
Ms Beatrice Anywar, the state minister for environment has recently advised Ugandans to stop using plastic bags because they spoil the environment. She suggested that they should use paper bags instead but a few people are paying attention to this.
She says that in rural areas, plastic waste is not regularly collected and people burn it and burry the residues or the plastic waste directly into the soil of their gardens, causing the risk of plastic fragmentation, formation of micro-plastics in the soil and accumulation in the food chain.
She explained that it is important for people to note that the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ lifestyle does not only mean that you are actively saving the environment but that it also means that you are benefiting yourself by possibly saving hundreds of dollars because using reusable bottles or water fountains can also ensure that any plastic you use is being recycled.
She added that with agriculture being the backbone of our economy, polythene bags do not only degrade our soil, but also endanger our animals that sometimes get entangled, or accidentally eat the polythene.
The debate on banning polythene bags is as old as 2000 when environmentalists, the ministry of health, and the Uganda Cancer Institute made it clear that Polythenes/ Kaveeras use is harmful both to the environment, human and livestock health.
Although after a long debate on the matter, the government started passing enabling Acts and statutes and by 2016, NEMA backed by police and the Uganda Revenue Authority launched the implementation of the ban, it wasn’t long before the situation went back to normal.
In the year 1972, on average a person used up to two kilogrammes of plastic, but today a person uses up to 43kg of plastic annually and since the 1950s, at least 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced worldwide.
A British environment report mentions that about one million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute, and this number is set to increase by another 20% by 2021 if laws are not made and enforced.
The same report says that more than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were purchased in 2016 across the world — up from 300 billion a decade ago.