ON Thursday, the Lahore High Court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure the complete ban on the manufacturing, sale and use of plastic bags in Punjab; and it gave shop owners 10 days to comply with the order. Earlier, in February, the court had banned the use of polythene and plastic bags at all mega stores in Lahore; the ban was later extended to Gujranwala and Faisalabad. This is not the first time such a ban has been put in place, and like previous attempts, it is just as unlikely to be successful this time around. Each attempt has been met with resistance, or followed briefly, only for shop owners and customers to quickly go back to the old ways of doing business. In 2006, the Sindh government first took the initiative to ban the hazardous material from the province, followed by repeated attempts in 2014, 2018, and then again in October 2019. Federal governments, too, have tried to impose bans on the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags. Most recently, the PTI government, which is perhaps ostensibly the most environmentally conscious government in our history, imposed a ban on single-use plastic bags in Islamabad and its surrounding areas on Aug 14, 2019. But this did little to change the reality on ground.
According to estimates, Pakistan consumes between 55bn to 112bn bags each year. There is little doubt about the health and environmental harms of single-use plastics: they clog drains, pollute natural waterways, and make their way into the digestive systems of animals. And yet, despite these periodical bans, the practicality of single-use plastic bags, the lack of availability or awareness of alternatives, the low cost of manufacturing, along with the difficulties in enforcing the law, have made it difficult to discard the hazardous material from our everyday lifestyles. Until practical alternatives can be offered, taking into account the ground realities of people’s lives, all well-meaning attempts to make a long-term impact are bound to fail.
Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2020