Polythene plastic pollution: a threat to the food system

April 25, 2018

Immaculate Daisy,

The use of polythene plastic bags has been popular for decades, with approximately 500 billion bags consumed annually all over the world. Although prized for being cheap, lightweight, and convenient, these bags and other plastic products wreak havoc on our environment. In recognition of Earth Day, we are looking at the impact of plastic pollution in Uganda; a large consumer of plastic bags in East Africa, and how this ultimately affects our food system. 

Unsuccessful legislation to reduce plastic pollution in Uganda

While the Government of Uganda imposed a total ban on polythene (plastic) carrier bags in 2009, implementation has unfortunately fallen short as a result of manufacturers and importers of plastic polythene bags being protected as contributors to better economic growth indicators for the country. The East African Community polythene materials control bill of 2016, that aims to provide a legal framework for the preservation of a clean and healthy environment through prohibition of manufacturing, sale, importation and use of polythene materials across East Africa, has never materialised. Furthermore, the establishment of functional systems to collect, treat and dispose unwanted plastic waste by governments at all levels is close to non existent. Combined with the careless disposal of citizen waste, especially when it comes to plastic carrier bags, the already dire situation is worsened, with heaps of plastic waste growing into ‘mountains’ over time.

The impact of plastic pollution on the food system

According to studies, plastic bags can take between 15 to 1,000 years to breakdown, a fact which not only has environmental consequences but impacts our food system as well. The prolonged disintegration of plastic often leads to choking of the soils, as plastics do not allow water to sink through. While there is the increasing likelihood that plastic bags in particular will decompose when exposed to water and sunlight, this means that the plastic particles leach into the soil, thereby affecting soil fertility and ultimately diminished food production. Alongside this, 60 per cent of stray cattle in Uganda die due to consumption of polythene bags and it is common for factories to dispose of their waste (including plastic waste) with chemicals in water bodies, causing the death of millions of water species. Over time, this will lead to food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition.

Harnessing citizen voice against plastic pollution

The persistent challenge of plastic waste and its multiplicity of drivers demands a range of solutions. The crisis to our food system in particular requires harnessing citizens’ voices against unsustainable practices, like plastic pollution, which threaten food production. Fostering changes in policies and practices of citizens and the private sector will also help towards building consensus on mutually felt issues. Through the Sustainable Diets for All programme, Hivos East Africa and partners in different countries including Uganda have convened local level social spaces for exploration and experimentation where multiple stakeholders can collectively come up with solutions to address this critical issue. Awareness raising campaigns and calls to change the unconscious practice of careless disposal of plastics and polythene bags are undertaken.

However, more can still be done to address this. Increased investments in plastic waste management by both government and private sector are necessary to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in the environment and ultimately in our food system. Promotion of the use of biodegradable materials for carrying groceries, as well as subsidies for factories to provide affordable carrier bags, is additionally important, as well as popularising the ‘4R’s’ concept of environmental management (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rethink). Enabling political environments that provide safe spaces for dialogue and dissenting views and opinions is yet another step.

There are many ways in which we can help conserve the Earth and its host of resources. As we commemorate Earth Day 2018, this is a reminder that a critical mass of people taking actions in their own ways is not only possible but needs to happen. Only we can prevent the effects of plastic pollution and guarantee intergenerational equity of the earth’s resources and our access to sustainable food.


Sustainable Diets for All (SD4ALL) is a Hivos and International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) advocacy programme that uses evidence, including evidence generated by citizens, to help low- income communities in Zambia, Uganda, Indonesia and Bolivia improve their access to sustainable, diverse and nutritious food.