It may have been overlooked in some circles, with much of the plastic waste attention being paid to global initiatives and hot spot regions, but the East African Community, an intergovernmental organization created in 1999 and comprised of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan, with approximately 175 million residents, has already recognized what other regions have been slow to embrace: environmental protection, including the current plastics crisis, is too big for countries to successfully tackle alone.

The EAC Law is the East African Law

In 2017, the EAC passed its landmark Polythene Materials Control Bill, which set out a series of restrictions and controls upon the continued introduction of polythene material into the EAC. The restrictions which impacted everyone from manufacturers, importers, vendors and other users of polythene (with a few exceptions), was not without opposition. A near blanket ban on polythene materials regionally is contemplated.

What makes this particularly noteworthy, and fundamentally distinct from the European Union and its plastics and waste Directives, is that the Polythene Materials Control Bill is the actual law to be enacted by each EAC member and not merely equivalency targets, minimum standards or best practices.

In so doing, the EAC has attempted to remove polythene usage from competition within and between its members and, for this, it is worthy of international attention as a possible model for other regions looking for effective environmental and commercial plastics solutions.

EAC “Green and Clean”

The EAC’s Polythene Materials Control Bill recognizes that the region needs to adopt common terminology, standards, obligations and enforcement mechanisms so that all of this members may ultimately benefit from a reduction in the proliferation of plastic waste – specifically polythene. Among its express collective objectives are to:

  • promote the use of environmentally friendly packaging materials;
  • preserve and promote a clean and healthy environment and land use management for sustainable development;
  • prevent any type of pollution caused by polythene materials in lakes, rivers and oceans;
  • protect infrastructure including drainage systems biodiversity and livestock;
  • promote recycling; &
  • (best of all) brand the East African Community as green and clean

It should be hardly surprising that these objectives need to be extended on a regional level to be effective. What is astonishing, perhaps, is that three years down the line, the EAC’s regional neighbours are yet to take similarly bold steps in their efforts to surmount the seemingly Sisyphean task of plastics waste management.

The Value of the EAC Model Should Be Assessed

The hesitancy in adopting this regional plastics law may be the current absence of clear data on its environmental and commercial success. As of February 2020, the EAC was still calling for laggard members (not to be mentioned here) to fully and finally adopt the polythene law – the type of problem that every intergovernmental organization faces.

But an imperfectly implemented EAC model may still be better than a softer regional touch, which can leave crucial elements to the discretion of each member -such as foundational terms, methodology and standards, leaving each collaborating country with a definition of success which is all their own. This has, to date, been the result of regional umbrella initiatives that lack the teeth to impose vigour into the shared undertaking.

Understanding the effectiveness of the EAC Model will be of upmost importance to its members in their ongoing efforts to manage plastic pollution in their communities, and also to their regional neighbours who may consider enacting similar laws. An assessment of this approach will have broader implications for other regions worldwide also struggling to balance domestic priorities with regional mandates, particularly the African Union. The continent is yet to see a widely-publicized continental drive to keep its plastic waste/pollution under control, as observed in other continents. It’s certainly worth considering.