Updated: May 7
Plastic is having an enormously damaging effect on our environments and our oceans. But its cultural implications are similarly extreme. Seble Samuel traces the emergence of plastic in Ethiopia, asking elders about the cultural changes this indestructible material has wrought, and learning from prominent anti-plastic campaigners about the direction they would like the Ethiopian government to take.
As much as we think of plastics as a permanent fixture of contemporary life, they are but a blip in our collective histories, and the stories of our elders tell us so. In my time we didn't use plastics,’ says Emama Tsion Andom, the 98-year-old who pioneered Ethiopia’s fashion scene by becoming the country’s first fashion designer in the 1960s. ‘We used our traditional alternatives.’
She refers to a string of abundant alternatives: clay pots, metal tins, wood barrels, hide bags, woven baskets, cotton scarves, gourd containers, newspaper bundles, handmade cloth bags, glass jars, that have lost their place over time, ousted by a deluge of single-use plastics.
‘Plastic is changing the life of my country,’ says Kiros Habtu, the 84-year-old who has been campaigning with SOS Addis to ban single-use plastics in Ethiopia for over a decade. ‘When I was born, and until I grew up, there was no plastic around. I think I probably saw plastic abroad, not here.’
‘Until I reached the age of 40 or 50 I guess, I don't remember the prevalence of plastic bags,’ recounts Mahary Maasho, the 81-year-old of Lem Ethopia, one of the country's leading environmental organizations. As Mahary recalls, hide bags, known as silicha, kept teff, chickpeas, corn, wheat for centuries. Farmers would use gourds to carry water when they went out for early morning farming. Wooden barrels were used to prepare tella, traditional beer and tej, traditional honey wine. Clay makers molded gan, big pots used to store cereals. Containers were created from bamboo as storage. Mothers tied netelas, cotton scarves, around their waists to carry hops, oranges, spinach, lemons and berbere spices from the market. Cloth bags, known as qeretit, were used to carry religious books and small items. Traditional baskets, called zembils, were woven from zembaba grasses. Salts and sugars were packaged in cone-shaped newspaper pages.
The plastics boom, little by little, crept its way into Ethiopia's markets. ‘The change happened gradually from alternatives to plastics,’ says Mahary. ‘Plastic bags were imported from abroad, they were distributed by the traders, and then they found themselves in the shops. Before, when you ordered sugar in amist kilo (a prominent central neighbourhood), it used to be in newspaper, then they started giving it to you in plastic bags.’
Plastic bags were imported from abroad, they were distributed by the traders, and then they found themselves in the shops
‘I kept wondering, don’t we have history?’ recalls 86 year old Aster Debossie. ‘Because everything, the zembils, clay pots, began disappearing.’
As imports and manufacturing intensified, plastic users spiked alongside production. ‘Local tools to preserve our food and water were replaced by plastic bags and plastic bottles,’ shares Mahary. ‘The production of traditional pots in the rural areas decreased tremendously because they had no market.’ As the plastics boom began to displace traditional livelihoods, plastic became a symbol of ‘modernity.’ ‘If you were carrying it the old way you would be called fara, old fashioned, outdated.’
‘If you were carrying it the old way you would be called fara, old fashioned, outdated’
‘Everybody was using them as a newfound treasure,’ says Kiros. ‘We did not understand the disadvantages of plastic bags, people did not inform us, not at all. People just used it because they thought it was handy, that's it, they didn't realize that it was the worst thing on earth.’
This unbridled propagation of plastics arose in a country without proper waste management systems. Trash is set on fire or brought to the periphery of cities. Plastic bags sail through blue skies or travel down unrecognizable rivers. They make homes in our farmers’ fields and microscopic pieces fill our bellies after harvests.
But rather than setting fire to plastics that need not be here, or piling the waste beside the neighbourhoods of the economically fragile, we can ban single-use plastics altogether. In fact, in Ethiopia we are surrounded by a sea of countries who have purged plastic bags from their societies. Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have all made single-use plastic bags history. But Ethiopia lags behind.
In Ethiopia we are surrounded by a sea of countries who have purged plastic bags from their societies
‘The problem in my country here in Ethiopia is that nice ideas emanate, environment pollution prevention programs develop, but we need action,’ says Mahary. Indeed, Ethiopia's Proclamation No. 513 on Solid Waste Management from 2007 – which prohibits the manufacture and importation of all thin (less than 0.03 mm) non-biodegradable plastic bags – never made its way into the real world.
Kiros' organization SOS Addis was a fundamental element in advocating for such legislation, campaigning to raise awareness on the societal and planetary dangers of single-use plastics and creating plastic alternatives in different communities across the capital city. ‘We went to parliament to ban plastics,’ says Kiros. ‘I mean, they are banned, legally, but it has never been put into practice.’ Building on this proclamation, Ethiopia's Environment, Forest and Climate Change Commission pushed a bill to parliament in early 2020 to ban single-use plastic bags altogether, but legislation has become side-tracked since the onset of the pandemic.
In the meantime, companies and rich nations are eyeing Ethiopia as a dumping ground for their plastic excesses
In the meantime, companies and rich nations are eyeing Ethiopia as a dumping ground for their plastic excesses. The fossil fuel industry, the birthplace of plastics, is pushing single-use plastics as a lifeline, a dying last breath, as their industry is made evermore redundant by falling fossil fuel demand and the rise of renewables. For decades, China was on the receiving end of the world’s plastic waste, but since China’s refusal to act as a global dumping ground – known as Operation National Sword – the global waste trade has been forever changed. Wealthy and wasteful countries have been left with mounting waste piles and a desperate search for new importers of their endless plastic heaps. With China now out of the question, the West is eyeing new ground for plastic disposal, with Ethiopia among a slew of African countries being targeted as a dumping site.
The stories of our elders show us that we can walk a different path. They illustrate to us just how recent this plastics boom really is, and the capacity we have to make its lifetime fleeting. It was only in the 1990s that single-use plastics made their way into Addis Ababa's waste profile, before that they were non-existent. These experiences of those who came before us show that ‘forward movement’ doesn't have to mean the import of a destructive foreign creation. Progress can mean a return to our traditions, a renewal of the practices that once sustained us. We can learn from the everyday life of our elders how to collectively build plastic-free communities.
‘Can we go back to square one, the natural way?’ asks Mahary. ‘I would say yes. If we Ethiopians have used alternatives for the past 3000 years, the advent of plastic bags and plastic bottles since the last 60 years or so, will not conquer us, but we have to wake up.’