Single-use plastic bans: autocrats — not citizen advocacy— get it done…

While citizen advocacy has played a role in raising awareness about the harms of single-use plastics, it is largely autocratic governments that have taken decisive action to implement bans and regulations.


Joshua Palfreman

3/2/20233 min read

white spoon
white spoon

Single-use plastics have become a global problem, with billions of tons of plastic waste ending up in landfills and oceans each year and the oceans' plastics cause reaching the top of the political agenda at COP, Davos and the UN Plastics Treaty INCs’. While many countries have attempted to regulate and ban single-use plastic products, few have been capable or bold enough to take on the petrochemical lobby. The underlying question: “why is plastic so hard to ban?” and “what makes some countries more successful than others in banning single-use plastics?” is explored in this article. We argue that, historically, the most effective efforts to ban single-use plastics have come not from idealism, behaviour change communication and awareness directed towards consumers (a popular greenwashing technique from the petrochemical lobby — to divert attention and responsibility) but from autocracies or ultimatum-like actions of bold, benevolent dictators — or, the strict, well-enforced and expensive fines levied against companies and consumers alike for infringements, in countries like Singapore and Denmark.

Few countries are lauded incorrectly for turning the tide against single-use plastics more frequently than Rwanda and Tanzania. Rwanda, often termed the “Switzerland of Africa”, is often commended internationally for the success of its advocacy against single-use plastics. Yet, under closer examination, Rwanda’s single-use plastic ban related much less to a participatory, inclusive and democratic advocacy process than to the singular decisions of the nation's longstanding dictator, President Paul Kagame, who implemented a complete ban on plastic bags in 2008, without consultation or fear, of any pushback from industry or government peers. In Tanzania, a similar story is told through the late President John Magufuli, often termed “Africa’s next dictator”. After twenty years of civil society-led advocacy against single-use plastics led nowhere, it was the hardline and non-consultative ultimatum decision that President Magafuli made that outright banned single-use plastic carrier bags. The success of single-use plastic bans in these countries is often attributed and lauded to supporting further investments in education and advocacy. Still, in reality, it was simply a top-down decision with little to no input from the public. It is incorrect and opportunistic to call such decisions participatory — they were not a success story of iterative advocacy — they were the judgements laid down by a singular individual wielding far too much power.

In addition to the examples of Rwanda, Tanzania, Denmark and Singapore serves as prime examples of successful single-use plastic ban through strict regulations, heavy fines, and levies on companies and individuals who violate the ban. The “polluter pays” principle has been heavily enforced in Singapore, for example, resulting in a significant reduction in plastic waste and the country consistently ranking among the top in the world for waste management. The Nordic countries, particularly Denmark and Sweden, have also implemented successful single-use plastic bans through high taxes, strict regulations, and public education campaigns. These examples demonstrate that a comprehensive approach, including strict enforcement and the willingness to take on the petrochemical industry, is crucial for effectively regulating single-use plastics and reducing plastic pollution.The absence of such boldness and over-dependence on raw “good intentions” is much to blame for the failed attempts of many democratic countries in attempting to implement single-use plastic bans. For example, the European Union has banned single-use plastics like straws and cutlery, but enforcement and compliance have been inconsistent across member states. Several cities and states have implemented plastic bag bans in the United States. Still, these efforts have been met with significant resistance from the plastics industry and have had mixed results.

In conclusion, the success of single-use plastic bans highlights the importance of strong political will and strict enforcement in addressing environmental problems. The examples of Rwanda, Tanzania, Singapore, and the Nordic states demonstrate that governments’ can effectively regulate single-use plastics and reduce plastic pollution if they dare to take on or ignore the petrochemical lobby. While admittedly, an autocratic approach to single-use-plastic bans is too high a price to pay — some balance between hollow idealism and decisive action, must be found.