ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) prohibited the use of non-degradable plastic in January 2013, but the industries in the country have all but shirked the ban.
Sources in the Climate Change Division (CCD) of the federal government told Dawn that the use of bio-degradable plastics had not progressed beyond the factories producing shopping bags. What worries them is the reluctance of the food industry to observe the ban.
The reason appears to be that while degradable plastics, used in packaging food products, are purposely designed to disintegrate after about six months, the food companies are strive for longer shelf-life for their products.
The fact that no study has been conducted in Pakistan to know precisely how the gases and residues released from a decomposing bio-degradable plastic impacts on the environment, food items and human health, helps the companies to show reluctance.
“That is because the Pak-EPA does not have the mechanism to study the impacts of bio-degradable plastics when dumped into the environment,” said a CCD official.
Indeed some environmental experts in the CCD believe that the regulation prohibiting non-degradable plastic was issued in haste, but the concept behind it was to deal with the social problem of littering.
Initially the application of the regulation was restricted to the manufacturing of shopping bags - and to Islamabad. Now the Pak-EPA is pushing for widening its application to the whole country. Last month, letters went out to different industries, including food companies, for using degradable plastic packaging.
Under the Prohibition of Non-degradable Plastic Products (manufacturing, sale and usage) Regulations 2013, degradable plastics were to replace all plastic items, shopping bags, bread bags and food including frozen food packaging, agricultural mulching films, woven plastic sacks used to pack potatoes and onions, as well as milk and water packaging to mention some.
Industrial circles know little how the petroleum-based additives in degradable bags affect the local environment.
“We do not know how the ingredients of the degradable plastics react with packaged food. The ingredients could reduce shelf-life of food items,” said a representative of Nestlé explaining why degradable plastics are not gaining favour in the food industry.
A senior member of another multinational company, Unilever, however agreed that leachate from the degradable plastic could contaminate food products. Degradable plastic bags are made from salts of manganese and ferrous metals.
These additives are mixed with plastic (polyethylene) granules in different percentages to make the plastics degradable when they react with oxygen and sunlight.
Worst, the Pak-EPA does not know the exact chemical composition of the additives. “Pak-EPA has not established any mechanism to check if the additives contaminate food, and may pose serious health problems,” said an official.
Former Secretary Climate Change Division Javed Malik recalls that degradable plastic packaging had been an issue from the very beginning.
“In a meeting of Chambers of Commerce Lahore in 2013, members decided to form a technical committee to hear concerns of the industry and the point of view of the government but the matter was delayed by a year,” he said.
Rao Dilshad Ahmad of the Climate Change Division, holding the additional charge of Pak-EPA, said that the technical committee has now been formed comprising members from the industry, Pakistan Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) and the Chambers of Commerce.
“It will look into all the loopholes and try to reach a solution that suits the industry as well as the government,” he said.