Yaounde, Cameroon – Audrie Mbatcham knocked on the abandoned Maersk shipping container and waited. A sturdy man in his early 20s, he was a barely visible silhouette in the dark alley separating tightly packed shacks.
“Fifty,” he said and looked over his shoulder.
The unpoliced slum in the centre of Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, sprawled around him and provided perfect cover.
Motorbikes roared in the distance. Tiny rays of light beamed through cracks in nearby walls and doors.
It is like buying dope.
A minute passed and he was on his way again, carrying a check-patterned sack containing 50 packets of 100 cheap plastics bags each in his right hand.
“It is like buying dope,” Mbatcham said.
Disposable plastics widely used as shopping bags throughout the country were driven underground earlier this year, when the government began enforcing an existing ban on the thin and inexpensive products for environmental reasons.
Prices more than doubled and young people like Mbatcham, a former dealer in second-hand shoes, changed their lines of business to cash in.
Authorities suspect more powerful dealers are driving the illicit activity and are still trying to catch them.
It is a big-money business sustained by corruption and involving networks that run across the border to factories in neighbouring countries like Nigeria, both dealers and officials told Al Jazeera.
Smugglers, distributors and manufacturers face up to five years’ imprisonment and more than $20,000 in fines. But the financial incentive is strong.
“Once you start setting standards there is the strong possibility of having inferior goods that will be running back-to-back with compliant goods,” said Enoh Peter, director of normalisation and standards at the ministry of environment.
Disposable plastics have been part of the shopping culture in Cameroon for decades.
Small business owners rely heavily on them to serve customers because plastics are cheap and widely available. Even though they now cost about $5 a pack of 100, they are still far cheaper than other alternatives.
In markets and neighbourhood stores around the country, they are used to wrap everything: candies, wheat-flour, even cooking oil. Shoppers often return home with many of them, which wind up in nature.
A few years ago, the ministry of environment calculated that Cameroon dumped more than six million tons of plastic waste annually. Light, inexpensive and disposable varieties that are easily blown around by the wind make up about 20 percent of the total.
Experts estimate that plastics can stay in nature for up to 1,000 years without breaking down, rendering soils infertile, blocking water ways, choking wildlife and endangering human health.
The plan is to progressively phase out all plastics and replace them with biodegradable alternatives, said Akwa Patrick, the secretary-general at the ministry of environment.
The long term gains outweigh any immediate benefits, he said.
But the market has not responded as authorities wished. Once manufacturers and importers knew the ban was coming, they increased their stocks hoping to make profits from the last-minute rush, said Enoh. Wholesalers hoarded tons of plastics hoping to push up prices when they become scarce.
However, it is rising cross-border smuggling that poses the biggest threat to the effort of the government. Tons of plastics have continued to come from outside, especially from Nigeria, which shares a poorly policed 2,000km border with Cameroon.
“Plastics come into the country through border towns in the southwest of the country,” said Mbatcham. “They then move deeper into the country by night, concealed among other goods. On the way, smugglers bribe their way past police checkpoints.”
Change of tactics
In the big cities and small towns alike, illegal stocks are piling up in private homes and secluded warehouses. Once introduced into the open market, plastics circulate almost freely.
“It is difficult to control consumers and small distributors,” said Enoh. Part of the reason is their sheer number. The informal sector, which consumes the most plastics, makes up more than 80 percent of the economy.
Authorities have arrested and locked up a number of small dealers in the past months, hoping that they will lead them up the ranks of the illegal operations to the big-money men. So far, they have not been very successful.
Ultimately, the battle would be won by declining demand, said Enoh.
A new law under consideration targets small consumers and microbusiness owners. Under the planned law, anyone caught with plastics will either spend several weeks in jail or pay a fine of about $30.
“When that happens, no one will have anything to do with plastics anymore,” Enoh said.
Authorities are also trying to dissuade the public by educating them on the negative impact of plastic waste and promoting the business opportunities in finding alternatives.
Earlier this year, the minister of environment, Pierre Hele, toured the nation, holding town hall meetings to explain the rationale of the decision.
The public has to play a central role by refusing plastics that do not comply with the new regulation, Enoh said. “If you produce and have a market, you may be tempted to keep producing,” he said.
So far, only supermarkets, bakeries and pharmacies seem to be complying, in part because they are under more scrutiny from officials. Most have switched to using customised paper bags with company logos and charging extra for more expensive but legal plastic bags.
Many people just can't come to terms with the fact that they have to pay for their bread to be wrapped.
“Many people just can’t come to terms with the fact that they have to pay for their bread to be wrapped,” said Jean-Marie Tsofack, a bakery owner.
“They are used to getting the service for free and often protest. But the new shopping bags are just too expensive to be given away for free.”
Known manufacturers and importers are also respecting the ban.
However, small business owners have protested that the ban was radical. Their businesses have relied on cheap plastics to serve customers for a long time and that is not about to change, said Emmanuel Sunjo, a grocery store owner.
“Alternatives are just too expensive and no one is willing to pay extra,” he said.
Authorities have dismissed accusations that the decision was rushed. A law passed as far back as 1996 already banned plastic bags.
Business owners were given 18 months to stop production, deplete their stocks and consider alternatives after the ministers of environment and trade decided to begin enforcing the law in 2013.
Some did, but others did not, said Patrick, the secretary-general at the ministry of environment.