Think you can't live without plastic bags? Consider this: Rwanda did it

On a recent trip to Rwanda, my luggage was searched at the border, and the authorities confiscated some of mybelongings. No, I wasn't trying to smuggle drugs or weapons. The offenders? Three plastic bags I'd use to carry myshampoo and dirty laundry.

You see, non-biodegradable polythene bags are illegal in Rwanda. In 2008, while the rest of the world was barelystarting to consider a tax on single-use plastic bags, the small East African nation decided to ban them completely.

At Kigali International Airport, a sign warns visitors that plastic bags will be confiscated. Agents from the RwandaEnvironment Management Authority (REMA) cut the plastic wrapping off negligent travellers' suitcases. Throughoutthe country, businesses have been forced to replace plastic carrier bags with paper ones.

The ban was a bold move. It paid off. As soon as I set foot in Rwanda from neighboring Uganda, it struck me. It'sclean. Looking out the window of the bus that was taking me to Kigali, the capital, I could see none of the mountainsof rubbish I'd grown accustomed to in other African countries. No plastic carrier bags floating in the wind or strandedon a tree branch.

Upon arrival in Kigali the contrast is even more evident. With its lovely green squares and wide boulevards, theRwandan capital is one of the most beautiful cities in Africa. And it's immaculate. Enough to teach a lesson toscruffy – albeit beloved – Western metropolises like New York or London. And the ban on plastic bags is just thestart for Rwanda. It's all part of the Vision 2020 plan to transform the country into a sustainable middle-incomenation.

Eventually, the country is looking to ban other types of plastic and is even hinting at the possibility of becoming theworld's first plastic-free nation. Its constitution recognizes (pdf) that "every citizen is entitled to a healthy andsatisfying environment." It also underlines each citizen's responsibility to "protect, safeguard and promote theenvironment".

Throughout the world, many initiatives to reduce or ban the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags have been haltedbecause of economic concerns. In England, for example, there is ongoing concern that a 5p levy on single-usecarrier bags could harm small businesses.

Still reeling from a horrific genocide which resulted in the deaths of over 800,000 people in 1994, Rwanda couldhave dismissed the plastic ban as an unnecessary hindrance for its developing economy. It could have opted for asimple levy on plastic carrier bags, as have many other American cities. But the authorities' main concern was theway in which plastic bags were being disposed of after use. Most were being burned, releasing toxic pollutants intothe air, or left to clog drainage systems.

Knowing it lacked the basic facilities to sustainably manage plastic waste, Rwanda devised a clever strategy to turnthe ban into a boost to its economy. The authorities encouraged companies that used to manufacture plastic bagsto start recycling them instead by providing tax incentives. The policy also created a market for environmentallyfriendly bags, which were virtually non-existent in the country before the ban.

Now in its sixth year, the policy has proved efficient, if not perfect. Rwanda is starting to struggle with a lucrativeblack market for the shunned plastic bags. The excessive use of paper bags is also starting to raise concerns. Butthe mere fact that a developing country facing tremendous challenges has managed to enforce suchgroundbreaking legislation should make us wonder what the western world could achieve if the political will reallyexisted.