Single-use plastic shopping bags are sold and used without any consideration for the havoc they are playing with the environment | Photos by White Star
Single-use plastic shopping bags are sold and used without any consideration for the havoc they are playing with the environment | Photos by White Star

When Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic plastic in 1907, he probably didn’t realise the impact his invention was going to have on the planet and its inhabitants. Plastic has changed the way we live, buy and consume.

Plastic is unavoidable for us today. It is found in literally everything we use; our vehicles, electronic goods, furniture; even our clothes, food and dental sealants! However, the irony is that what was created for its strength and durability is now mostly preferred for its convenience and disposability.

In the span of a little more than 100 years, we have created and disposed enough synthetic plastic for it to have become a part of earth’s layer itself and be called ‘techno fossil’ according to Dr Ceri Lewis from the University of Exeter. As per the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the world produces around 450 million tonnes of plastic every year; 40 percent of which is disposed of after single use. According to the National Geographic Society, 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the ocean every year, not counting nano particles and micro beads. In fact, we are soon approaching a time where plastic will outnumber marine life itself. A staggering 180 million tonnes of plastic trash comes from single-use items such as shopping bags, straws, cutlery, bottles and packaging.

Washed up on our beaches and ever present in rubbish heaps scattered across our urban and rural spaces is plastic. But the undegradable monster is also killing our marine life and entering our bodies

Plastic takes anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years to break down into the earth’s structure and yet we continue to consume recklessly with complete disregard to our planet’s eco balance. Of all the plastic produced between 1950 and 2015, only nine percent has been recycled! The rest is being burned, releasing toxic fumes as a result, or dumped in the oceans or in landfills, and comes back to us like bad karma.

THE SITUATION IN PAKISTAN

Pakistan is not among the top plastic waste-producing countries such as China, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. However, owing to rapid urbanisation, a booming population and an increase in consumerism, we are dumping an alarming amount of plastic waste into our land and rivers leading to the Arabian Sea. A conservative estimate by the Environmental Protection Agency suggests that around 55 billion disposable plastic bags are used by Pakistanis in a year. This does not account for single-use cutlery, crockery and packaging material.

Owing to the increasing amounts of this almost-immortal debris, we’ve ended up choking our waterways, contaminating ecological habitats and killing precious marine life. What makes the situation even more precarious is that, since plastic takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, it keeps breaking down into smaller particles which we call microplastics. This microplastic is now entering our bodies through the water, food and even the salt we consume.

I am surprised at the lack of data and research on the consumption and wastage patterns of single-use plastic in Pakistan. People like Bushra Ahmed Rizvi, a senior volunteer at the Citizens for a Cleaner Karachi, have been engaged in awareness and advocacy for some years now. She feels that the lack of data for serious research and policy planning shows that the issue is not even on the radar of the government and circles concerned.

Ironically, this area has not been a priority for either the governments or the people at large. However, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel.

THE GOVERNMENT STANCE

Junaid Rajput, Deputy Director Environment, Climate Change and Coastal Development Department, Sindh is passionate about environmental literacy. He has a degree in Environmental Governance from Germany and is highly accessible to discuss his department’s work on plastic pollution.

Replying to a query about the key goals and actions of the government to reduce plastic pollution by 2025 and beyond, he says, “As far as the Sindh government is concerned, our scope is beyond plastic pollution and includes ensuring that climate action is mainstreamed in development planning, particularly for the economically and socially vulnerable sectors of the economy — including consumer plastic industry — to steer Sindh towards economic growth and climate compatible development. As an action step, the Sindh government has recently introduced a phase-wise ban against non-biodegradable polythene plastic bags, initially in Sukkur district and then the rest of Sindh. Besides, further encouragement of the industry to switch to oxo-biodegradable plastic for all commercial purposes is our focus right now.”

However, there are hurdles to this. “There is reluctance from manufacturers for procurement of degradable additives due to increase in cost of manufacturing,” Junaid reveals. “Our department, however, is in contact with the manufacturers and industry representatives who are reluctant to change but there are fair chances that some agreement will be reached later on to make the industry sustainable in line with environment-friendly policy and practices. We have assured them of full support through the transition towards degradable packaging.”

He further adds, “There are difficulties in sampling and monitoring, in addition to low will of the concerned administration to the enforcement of law.”

However, the key area that requires attention and a broad-based response is the difficulty Sindh faces due to transportation from other provinces and the shifting of manufacturing sector to other provinces. Junaid feels that this needs to be addressed urgently at the federal level with the promulgation of step-wise ban with inter-provincial coordination.

An example of this is the packaged beverage bottles coming from industrial zones in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) to Sindh. Since the ban has not been enforced in Punjab and KP, plastic packaging continues unabated and still affects the areas which have promulgated the ban.

Though only 40 at the moment, the number of countries banning single-use plastics, especially plastic bags, is increasing rapidly. However, we, in Pakistan, are going too slow on this.

Bushra Rizvi describes how an effective ban of plastic bags in Rwanda since 2008 has helped the country become cleaner, attract more tourists, save up on petrodollars and reduce seasonal diseases such as dengue fever. She says, “If a poor country like Rwanda can do it, why can’t we?”

WELL, WHY CAN’T WE?

Some of the best practices from around the world — be it developed countries such as the UK or developing ones such as Bangladesh and Rwanda — have been due to stringent policies by the government. For instance, in the UK last year, heavy taxes were imposed on plastic packaging with less than 30 percent recyclable polymers. In Rwanda, carrying a plastic bag can land you in jail with a heavy fine. People coming into Rwanda have to leave all plastic bags at the immigration.

A ban on single-use plastics in Pakistan requires concerted and consistent government effort. The government needs to draft a clear stance on making alternatives available for the people associated with single-use plastic manufacturing and retail.

An estimated 300,000 people are employed in this sector in Sindh, including Karachi, while the national figure is beyond one million. The government would need to look at the numbers before implementing the ban to avoid economic losses and grievances.

The monitoring and implementation of bans already in place also needs to be effective. The governments of KP and Sindh have promulgated the plastic bag ban since some time but the implementation and monitoring are completely missing. The only exception is the cantonment areas of all major cities, where the plastic bag ban is being implemented effectively.

An overlooked issue is the sale of plastic bags according to product weight rather than quantity. In the UK, each plastic bag is taxed at five pence by the government and plans are to take it up to 10 pence per bag, whereas in Pakistan, owing to cheap raw materials, plastic bags are not only cheap but also abundantly available to retailers in packaging according to weight.

The Fast Moving Consumer Good Companies (FMCGs) are a major source of plastic waste creation with beverage and snack manufacturers topping the list. It is time that these giants step in to take the responsibility of curbing the enormous trash they’re producing for the planet. Among the biggest single-use plastic polluters according to the Greenpeace are food and beverage giants. Owing to increased environmental activism internationally, they have been forced to pledge recyclable, reusable or biodegradable packaging by 2030.

A similar activism is needed in Pakistan to get companies like these to reduce their plastic waste with innovative techniques, such as the milk-man’s model being planned abroad where companies will refill product containers such as shampoos and detergents rather than produce more plastic packaging. There needs to be a bigger commitment and action from them than corporate social activities which, in fact, drive up sales.

Hina Faheem Siddiqui, a physicist with a keen interest in environment, quotes how setting up eco-industrial estates, which primarily rely on a loop of RRR (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), can help to reduce plastic waste. These industrial set-ups, such as those in the Scandinavian countries as well as in Canada, South Korea and even India, are planned in a way to use the waste of one industry to power the other — for instance, using single-use plastic as fodder for the pharmaceutical industry after putting it through treatment corrective procedures.

With CPEC and other foreign investment expected, this is the perfect time for the government to plan eco-industrial parks because it makes good business sense in addition to helping the environment.

With the present government’s priority towards the environment, one hopes that effective policy and action is taken soon. But we’re running out of time as the environmental clock ticks fast.