Plastic bags have been banned in Rwanda for 10 years. As a result, some shops have taken to making bags using recycled paper. Scrap paper and photocopied sheets or students’ old exam papers are used to wrap up goods. An Observer in Kigali is worried, however, that these paper alternatives could pose risks of their own. And the Rwandan authorities share her concern.

The import, use and sale of plastic bags have been forbidden in Rwanda since 2008. Those who don’t follow the law can face fines and even prison sentences. Since the law was put into place, the use of paper bags has now sprung up instead.

"These bags worry me because maybe some of the paper used to make them was taken out of rubbish bins"

One of our Observers in Kigali contacted France 24 to share her concerns with paper bags.

Some shop-owners use little bags that look like envelopes to wrap up their produce. The bags have been made out of pages that were originally meant to be thrown away: scrap paper, graded exam papers, people’s old cover letters, photocopies of ID cards… We see a lot of all of that in shops.

Photo taken by our Observer.

Photo taken by our Observer.

From what I know, it’s office cleaners who collect these sheets of paper, in order to sell them to people who make cheap paper bags. All you need is glue to make them. Then the bags are sold to shops, also cheaply.

This concerns me – and I know I’m not the only one – because maybe some of the paper that was used to make the bags was taken out of rubbish bins. Maybe it’s not a problem if they are used to wrap up products that we can wash or that we cook before eating. But it’s worrying in terms of hygiene when this paper is used to wrap food that we eat directly from the wrapper like doughnuts, meatballs, cakes, chapatis or samosas – all food that Rwandans buy regularly.

Photos taken by our Observer.

Shouldn’t we get rid of these paper bags, like we did with the plastic bags? But having said that, if we do ban them, I don’t know what shopsellers will use, because the other bags that exist – also made with paper or other materials – are a lot more expensive…

Photo taken by our Observer, who says that it is still possible to find plastic bags in markets.

Unhygienic paper bags banned since August 1

France 24 contacted Samson Twiringire from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA), an organisation connected to the Ministry of Environment. He said that these paper bags described by our Observer already existed well before the plastic bags ban.

They’re made by people in their homes, with glue, and it’s illegal. Then they’re used by shopsellers because they’re cheap.

The Rwanda Standards Board, a governmental body that sets out and publishes standards for consumer protection and promotes trade, decided to ban these types of paper bags on August 1, after consultation with the Ministry of Health.

We banned wrapping food in paper that had already been used, for public health and hygiene reasons. The paper isn’t clean: it has ink on it, and the people who collect the paper and those who use it to make the bags do so with their hands without even thinking about hygiene.

On August 1 we also started a media campaign to ask consumers and shopsellers to stop using these types of paper bags. We’ve now started monitoring markets and confiscating these paper bags.

Photo taken by our Observer, showing the type of paper bags that are authorised.

This article was written by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).