06/18/2012 01:01 EDT | Updated 08/18/2012 05:12 EDT

There's Nothing "Extremist" About Banning Plastic Bags


Recently, Toronto City Council did something that Mayor Rob Ford deemed "ludicrous and dangerous": They banned plastic bags. Perhaps Council was concerned about the estimated 500 billion plastic bags are used around the globe each year. Yet, while commentators such as the Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente decried the ban as the "new puritan cause," African countries have been out front on this issue for years.

Almost a decade ago, South Africa began restricting the use of plastic bags. In 2007, both Uganda and Kenya banned the thinnest plastic bags and imposed taxes on the usage of other plastic bags. By 2006, Rwanda, Eritrea and Somaliland had banned plastic bags altogether. When I crossed over from Uganda to Rwanda in 2009, border officials scolded me for wrapping my shampoo in a plastic bag. Not only was it illegal, they told me, it was also bad for the environment.

Plastic bags are banned for a reason. In Africa, they are a persistent blight. The presence of tattered plastic bags blowing along the countryside caused them to be dubbed South Africa's "National Flower." Uganda's ban is helping, but there is a ways to go. The bags end up on the streets, blown against fences and the lush palm and acacia trees. On Kampala's chaotic streets, in the midst of the dust, honking matatus, rushing pedestrians and hungry goats, the plastic bags have become part of the background. They choke plants, choke animals, and clog the water drains, causing roads to flood from the back up during the rainy season.

Without a coherent trash collection system on the streets, Kampala's residents often turn to burning the garbage along with grass and scrap vegetation. These tiny smouldering fires can be seen all over the city; families near my office burn garbage regularly. Burning plastic creates serious health problems, including respiratory ailments. Even worse, the burning of plastic creates dioxin and furans, the most dangerous compounds in the world. It is a permanent stain in the eco-system. Dioxins have been labeled genetic "hand grenades." In a country where most people cannot afford proper health care, this is serious.

Margaret Wente sneeringly describes the Toronto ban as "the imposition of virtue by the classes on the masses." What Wente doesn't understand is that that around the world, it is the masses that suffer from the proliferation of toxins and pollution. You don't see the expats in Naguru or Kololo with their mansions, gated compounds and well-manicured lawns, dealing with garbage. It is the people living in the slums of Kisenyi, and the people living in shacks along the roadside, who suffer from the trash and toxins from burning garbage. If they don't burn the garbage, the streets would be overrun with junk.

Many people in Toronto think that Rob Ford's outrage over the ban on plastic bags is simply one more example of his buffoonish character. There is a tendency to treat Ford as just a one-off phenomenon -- and then Toronto and Canada will return to political normalcy. But in many ways, Rob Ford fits as the new face of Canada on the world stage.

As countries across Africa fight desperately to protect and restore the environment, Canada is sending out clear signals that worrying about the environment is for extremists. Ugandans don't have that luxury. Consider that 23 per cent of all deaths in Africa are linked to environmental factors, caused by dirty water, land degradation and toxic urban pollution. Since 1950, roughly 500 million hectares of land in Uganda have suffered from soil degradation- this is almost 65 per cent of agricultural land.

While Canada trashes its international reputation by attacking environmentalists as radicals and repudiating Kyoto, Ugandans are living with the real impacts of environmental degradation. And so while Mr. Ford hopes for corporate lawsuits to turn back the clock in Toronto, Kampala is working towards a future where the wetlands and fields won't be blighted by the ubiquitous plastic bag.

Canada used to send development organizations to "help" Africa. Now they just seem to send multinational mining and oil companies, looking to get the continent's resources. Maybe it's time Uganda and other African countries sent development officers and agencies to help Canada get back on track. Maybe this time, Ugandans can help Canadians take back Canada.