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Plastic pollution

October 12, 2018

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The writer is a freelance columnist.
The writer is a freelance columnist.

MOST Pakistanis would be forgiven for not knowing that a ban on plastic bags exists across most of the country, given that our federal and provincial governments have failed to implement such bans properly. In fact, implementation is so poor that, in any market, one will see plenty of plastic bags changing hands with impunity.

The verdict is still out on why bans on plastic bags have so far failed in Pakistan. While there may be multiple reasons, a lack of will seems the most likely cause behind the continuing widespread availability and use of plastic bags. After all, if authorities in the capital can effectively ban smoking shisha in public places, end the decades-old tradition of kite flying, and impose food and time restrictions on wedding ceremonies, how difficult is to curtail the use of plastic bags?

In Sindh, for example, a ban has existed since 2014 under the Sindh Prohibition of Non-degradable Plastic Products (Manufacturing, Sale and Usage) Rules and the Sindh Environmental Protection Act. It was only earlier this year that the provincial government finally issued a notification to impose the ban. The issue isn’t particular to Sindh alone, as poor implementation of plastic bag bans has also been reported in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Our country is facing an escalating plastic bag pollution crisis. A recent survey by the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency found that about 55 billion bags are currently being used, and is expected to increase yearly by 15 per cent. The sooner we realise and address the shortcomings in our strategy to ban plastic bags, the less likely we are to share the fate of countries where plastic bags have caused floods by clogging waterways, seriously harmed ecosystems, and contributed to the spread of vector-borne diseases.

Why have bans on plastic bags so far failed in Pakistan?

Imposing an outright ban on a widely used item without creating disincentives to discourage its use and providing some affordable alternatives is futile. Our government needs to consider strategies such as imposing a bag tax, which has proved to be very effective in other countries. For example, after a five-cents bag tax was imposed in Washington, DC, usage fell by an estimated 86pc. There’s no reason why it wouldn’t have similar results in Pakistan.

Initially, only single-use plastic bags, which take decades to decompose, can be tackled. Thick recycled plastic bags are a good alternative if they are reused, as are oxo-degradable bags. But these alternatives should be taken with a pinch of salt. If people only use thick bags once, they’ll be as harmful to the environment as standard bags, if not more so. Oxo-degradable bags still take three years to decompose completely; even longer if they end up in a landfill with limited exposure to oxygen.

One might think that the only remaining option is to use bags that are not made of plastic, but this isn’t an entirely straightforward solution. Paper bags are considered by many to be the most obvious substitute, but recent research has shown that they contribute significantly to global warming. This leaves us with cloth bags, which also have a big carbon footprint.

With no alternative that is 100pc eco-friendly, the most impactful approach is to maximise our reuse of shopping bags, be they made of thick plastic or cloth. That is what people used to do before the advent of single-use shopping bags, so going back to this eco-friendly habit shouldn’t be too herculean a task. On our part, we need to get used to taking our reusable bags with us when we go shopping.

But, of course, the bigger responsibility lies with the government, whose job it is to facilitate people in transitioning from single-use plastic bags to reusable bags. Steps need to be taken to make the transition easier for shopkeepers, who have been and will be facing backlash from consumers when they don’t provide free shopping bags. Affordable alternatives to traditional single-use bags should be made readily available, and if the government is willing to go the extra mile, subsidising them could expedite the implementation of plastic bag bans across the country.

Besides these measures, there is also an urgent need to launch awareness campaigns to educate people about the necessity of banning single-use plastic bags, and how changing our habits and using more eco-friendly bags can make a difference. So far, awareness campaigns to influence the behaviour of shoppers are ostensibly non-existent in Pakistan. Without awareness campaigns, there is bound to be widespread non-compliance.

The growing demand and use of traditional plastic bags in Pakistan despite bans is a testament to the lack of efforts by the government. Plastic bag pollution could have been curtailed years ago if more concrete and meaningful steps had been taken, but it’s not too late for the government to mend its approach and put a lid on this growing menace once and for all.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

obed.suhail@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2018