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Experts: Diapers are Uganda’s growing environmental crisis

Kiteezi landfill

Kiteezi landfill

Before arriving at the Kiteezi landfill in Kasangati Town Council, Wakiso district, the primary dumping site for all waste from the Kampala Metropolitan Area, one encounters heaps of assorted waste: plastics, mineral water bottles, glass bottles, metallic scrap, paper waste, and polythene bags.

This waste is meticulously sorted immediately after collection from its source. Each worker on the garbage trucks, derogatorily referred to as “kalooli” (a term derived from the marabou stork commonly found at garbage pits), specializes in a particular type of waste. As the truck moves from home to home and office to office, valuable waste is sorted and set aside for sale, either at Kiteezi or beforehand. What remains is decomposing material such as banana leaves used for cooking, leftovers, diapers, and other single-use sanitary items.

“The only waste that has no market is what ends up at Kiteezi,” said Sulaiman Magemule, the director of Majestic Waste, a waste collection company operating in Kasangati Town Council.

“We haven’t found any use for pampers and sanitary pads, yet it’s almost impossible to collect waste from a home without these two items,” Magemule added.

Kato James, a rubbish collector at Kiteezi, echoed this sentiment. He noted that in his years working at Kiteezi, many types of rubbish have found markets, but there is still no demand for diapers, which now constitute a significant portion of the waste.

“Most of the garbage has found a market. We have people specializing in collecting different forms of waste. I can tell you, without this garbage, I don’t know where many of us would be. Tulya kukasasiro [We make our living from waste],” Kato said.

From Kato and Magemule’s perspectives, it is clear that there is an increase in non-biodegradable waste with little effort towards its management. Very few homes or organizations, including large institutions like schools, have incinerators to burn their non-biodegradable waste such as sanitary pads and diapers.

When, in May 2023, Members of Parliament approved a tax on diapers, there was an uproar from some opposition MPs questioning the rationale behind the move. They wondered what Uganda was thinking in imposing such a tax when the world is moving away from using cloth diapers.

In her report to parliament, the deputy chairperson of the Finance Planning and Economic Development Committee, Jane Pacutho, stated that the government had wanted to exempt only adult diapers from the tax, arguing that they are medical goods.

“The committee observed that diapers are not biodegradable, making them an environmental hazard. The proposed change in law is aimed at clarifying that it is adult diapers that are treated as medical goods, not all diapers,” Pacutho said.

Female MPs from the opposition argued against the tax, saying it was regressive and worked against the interests of women, who would now need more time for the sanitary needs of their babies, hence limiting their productive time.

“While the government proposal to impose a tax increase on diapers is intended to boost revenue, the country stands to lose if the productive time of mothers is wasted in washing reusable diapers,” said Joyce Bagala, the Woman MP for Mityana.

Opposing the tax, Muwanga Kivumbi, the MP for Butambala County, questioned the assertion that diapers are non-biodegradable. He claimed that this was based on hearsay rather than facts. Despite pleas, including those from the State Minister for Finance, Amos Lugoloobi, MPs approved the tax on all diapers.

The parliamentary debate clearly focused more on economic considerations than on the environmental impact of diapers. Over the past decade, Uganda has seen a proliferation of companies producing non-reusable and non-degradable sanitary ware. These include baby and adult diapers, sanitary pads, daily pant liners, disposable bed sheets, and maternity pads.

Most of these products are made from polythene and factory-grade absorbent gels, which are non-biodegradable. The trend now is that nobody wants to wash anything. As these products have become more readily available, their prices have decreased, with a single-use diaper or pad costing just Shs 500.

But how much of a problem are these products for the environment? According to research by McGill University in the United States, a child can use between 3,000 to 7,000 diapers until they learn to use a potty. The research also shows that because diapers are made from petroleum products, they can take up to 500 years to decompose.

Additionally, the fecal content in diapers can leach into groundwater, especially from older landfills. This contrasts with the waste from cloth diapers, which is washed down the toilet and treated in sewage facilities.

Unlike in America, where substantial research is available on the environmental dangers of diapers and other disposable products, little has been done in Uganda. However, the problem is undeniably being felt. Environmentalist Oweyagha Afunaaduula says that until those with the power to safeguard the environment stop paying lip service and, in some cases, participating in its destruction, Uganda will never find a solution to the menace posed by these non-biodegradable products.

“The most urgent environmental issue we face in Uganda is the intellectually impoverished and ignorant governors. They are collectively the worst pollutants in Uganda, yet they are the ones we expect to lead us in the struggle to salvage our environment,” said Afunaaduula, who has previously campaigned against the use of non-biodegradable chemicals to combat water hyacinth on Lake Victoria and the rising number of plastics factories.

Afunaaduula argues that since most of the materials used in the manufacture of non-biodegradable products come from abroad, fighting them would be easy if the government cared to do so. However, he believes this would be difficult because many government officials own factories that produce these materials.

“Many political, military, and bureaucratic actors are involved in various economic activities, and their factories contribute to environmental pollution. We cannot expect them to play a pivotal role against pollution. Besides, President Museveni’s philosophy of development prioritizes infrastructural development over social development,” Afunaaduula explained.

His views align with those of Frank Muramuzi, the executive director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE). Muramuzi expressed concern over the increased use of diapers and the years they take to decompose.

“We are encouraging alternatives to polythene bags, such as paper bags. For diapers, we encourage mothers and caregivers to use reusable materials instead of single-use products to reduce demand and lessen extractivism,” Muramuzi said.

He added that although they have supported taxation on plastics to discourage their use, they have found that taxes are ineffective as they are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

Muramuzi also emphasized the need to incorporate gender issues in environmental management. He believes that until women, who are the primary users of single-use plastics, realize the environmental dangers of their actions, the fight will be lost.

“While we advocate for the use of diapers to reduce the time women spend on unpaid care work, we must investigate their quality. We must also consider how this waste is disposed of at the household level. That is the only way we can progress without posing a threat to our environment,” Muramuzi concluded.

Naome Karekaho, the spokesperson of NEMA, admitted that diapers are indeed an emerging environmental hazard, and there are no specific laws to address them.

“Diapers are non-degradable, and the alternatives are not yet attractive to mothers. The best way to handle them would be to separate them from other waste and incinerate them. Currently, waste is not separated at the source. Many waste management issues need to be addressed before focusing specifically on diapers,” Karekaho said. Even with the restriction on buveera (plastic bags), Karekaho noted the challenges in enforcing this ban.

“The National Environment Act mandates banning plastic carrier bags of 30 microns, but this is very difficult to enforce since one cannot distinguish between 30 and 35 microns with the naked eye. Manufacturers have also been mislabeling in some cases. The law will need to be revised for proper enforcement,” Karekaho added.

Christine Nakimwero Kkaaya, the Woman MP for Kiboga District and the Shadow Minister for Environment, stated that although the government has enacted laws to protect the environment, very little has been done to implement them.

“NEMA selectively enforces the rules. Often, the individuals causing the most harm are allowed to do whatever they want,” Nakimwero said.

She added that there is limited support for those tasked with monitoring environmental compliance. This situation has given investors the leeway not only to construct in wetlands and other restricted areas but also to manufacture products harmful to the environment.

“Somebody might say, ‘Yes, I know what I’m doing is wrong, but you left the other person alone. Why should I comply when everyone else is not complying?’ Therefore, we need to increase the budget for organizations that ensure compliance, crack down on corruption within these organizations, and address the impunity of some government officials who feel they are untouchable and can do whatever they want,” Nakimwero emphasized.



0 #1 kabayekka 2024-06-14 06:43
Muhammad and Ashely you have a very important environmental point. You have shown that the African public are well educated about the environment than those who govern them.

"Therefore, we need to increase the budget for organizations that ensure compliance, crack down on corruption within these organizations, and address the impunity of some government officials who feel they are untouchable and can do whatever they want,” Nakimwero emphasized."

One only needs to go and visit this Kiteezi dumping site to understand the impunity and mismanagement of KCCA officialdom.

The dumping site is full up. It is a health and safety hazard. It needs to be sited elsewhere. How then can such corrupt government officials properly propose a better solution to the African children who must help themselves to the toilet after their parents have worked so hard and paid their taxes for their meals!
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0 #2 kabayekka 2024-06-14 07:27
One cannot believe that Human Excretion, in biological terms is an environmental catastrophe that must never be activated!

This very religious Uganda Parliament most probably wants to pass an environmental law to stop children not to help themselves to the toilet!

The rubbish dumping site was supposed to attend to the Kampala city rubbish from 1996 to 2011 and closed. It is unfortunate that because of NRM continuous African unemployement, the Africans working under very miserable conditions have been condemned to go on working until Jesus comes back to earth.
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