The persistent smuggling of prohibited polythene materials (plastics) into Cameroon is driven by increasing demand due to the high price of permitted alternatives, coupled with porous borders and weak enforcement of the law.
In Cameroon, the manufacturing, possession and commercialisation or free distribution of non-biodegradable plastic packaging with a density of less than or equal to 60 microns in thickness, as well as the granules used for their manufacture, are forbidden.
There are two reasons for specifying this thickness. Firstly, thin plastic bags decay slower than thick ones. They need up to 400 years to decompose and, even then, they only break down into smaller toxic particles that contaminate the environment. Secondly, packaging hot foods in thin plastic bags is dangerous, as such plastics emit inedible petroleum substances that cause long-term health problems for consumers.
Violators face between two and 10 years in jail with fines of up to US$20 000.
Despite the ban, plastic packaging less than 60 microns thick continues to circulate in the Cameroonian market. This packaging is made from polyethylene, a petroleum byproduct with long repeating chains of hydrogen and carbon molecules known as polymers, which can be heated, shaped and cooled to make plastic bags. The bags are relatively cheap to produce, affordable and can be disposed of easily.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Environment, Nature Protection and Sustainable Development, non-biodegradable waste represents about 10% of the 6 million tonnes of waste generated daily in Cameroon. A considerable portion of this waste is a byproduct of smuggled polythene materials.
Smugglers from neighbouring countries, including Nigeria and Gabon, sneak these prohibited bags into Cameroon hidden in legal shipments or haul them across the border on footpaths. The smuggling chain includes wholesalers and state officials embedded in the criminal economy. Some law enforcement officials are willing to look the other way for bribes, while other officials are corrupted by dealers of the contraband plastic through backdoor negotiations aimed at freeing the arrested wholesaler and releasing the seized items.
After they have been bought on the black market and used, the prohibited non-biodegradable plastic waste is dumped indiscriminately, obstructing waterways in major cities. This has resulted in widespread flooding, which promotes the development of vector diseases such as malaria and cholera. The plastic also blocks the drainage of water into the soil, preventing the development or expansion of roots and contributing to diminishing agricultural production.
It also has resulted in the death of cattle, especially in the northern part of Cameroon, where free-grazing livestock have eaten plastic waste that is strewn over pastures.
In 2014 and 2015, over 200 people were arrested and detained for 10 days each for smuggling plastic contraband into the country, while over 60 tonnes of plastic less than 60 microns thick (worth over US$483 000) were impounded. These operations were carried out by a regional delegation of the environment ministry in collaboration with customs officials and the Ministry of Trade in the Southwest Region of the country.
In 2019, customs officials seized 8 428 kg of non-biodegradable plastic bags. In April 2020, 50 tonnes of non-biodegradable plastic packaging concealed in bags of chilli and tea were seized in Mbé, Adamaoua, in the Northern Region. On 1 September 2020, customs agents seized 800 kg of non-biodegradable plastic bags in Maroua smuggled from Nigeria, under Operation Halcomi, which was aimed at stopping illicit transborder trades. In September 2021, government officials intercepted and destroyed 42 tonnes of non-biodegradable plastics in Garoua in the North Region.
While the increasing records of seizures indicate that customs officials are aware of the duties of border policing and port surveillance, the measures taken by government to curb this problem remain largely inadequate. This is closely associated with a lack of political will to fully drive security, law enforcement and environmental solutions to the criminal economy. Reinforcing border controls and international police cooperation with Nigeria and Gabon as countries of origin for this contraband is a necessary ingredient to countering this trade.
More importantly, controlling the smuggling of non-biodegradable plastics into Cameroon requires new medium- and longer-term approaches to environmental governance.
Firstly, the government needs to increase the production of inexpensive and versatile alternatives to conventional, non-biodegradable plastic. They can do this by supporting the development of businesses that focus on eco-friendly innovation and a circular economy, which involves reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible. This calls for a shift in thinking, according to environmentalists.
Secondly, sustained public education should accompany the implementation of the ban on non-biodegradable plastics in the country. Sections 147 and 268 of Law No. 2019/24 on the Administration of Local Authorities in Cameroon states that the objective of the local council is to ensure local development and improve the living environment and conditions of its inhabitants by formulating, implementing and monitoring regional environmental action plans or schemes. Therefore, the urban and rural council authorities in Cameroon should be designated by the central government to carry out this public awareness campaign with local civil society organisations in partnership with the media, and sufficiently resourced to do so.
The combination of these solutions would lower the demand for non-biodegradable plastics and may reduce the incentive for smuggling.
Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa