Plastic conundrum

Published April 19, 2022
The writer is a lecturer at National University of Modern Languages.
The writer is a lecturer at National University of Modern Languages.

IN August 2020, after three months of public-awareness initiatives, the former PTI-led government enacted a ban on the use of plastic bags in Islamabad. The prohibition was followed by raids on merchants, general stores and malls in the city by the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency and the local administration. Those who refused to comply were fined. However, since then, the curbs appear to have eased and plastic bags are once again being used throughout the capital as if they are permitted.

While some kiosks and roadside hawkers pack fruit and vegetables in secret, other small or large business in markets and malls, as well as monthly bazaars, have reverted to openly serving their customers in single-use plastic bags. But public-awareness initiatives seemed to have made some impact. Many citizens have begun taking their own cloth bags with them.

The usage of single-use plastics is a long-standing problem in Pakistan. Tens of billions of single-use bags are used each year. Estimates range from 55bn to more than 112bn. There is no sign of a waste management system. Single-use plastics now account for 40 per cent of all plastic products manufactured each year. Plastic pollution is ubiquitous in practically every sector of the capital city — as it is in the rest of the country — no matter how posh a sector is. Meanwhile, garbage collection services remain inadequate or nonexistent, especially on the outskirts of Islamabad.

The federal and provincial governments have frequently imposed bans on single-use plastic bags made of polyethylene (commonly known as polythene) several times, but they have proven to be ineffective. The authorities have not been able to enforce the bans effectively because people do not have access to any other alternative to replace the cheap and easy-to-use ‘polythene’ bag, such as compostable plastic bags. For example, the Sindh government attempted to ban plastic bags as far back as 2006, followed by 2014 and then again in 2019. All these times, the ban proved to be ineffective. Similarly, the federal government in 2009 prohibited the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags but that too was a failure.

Several bans on disposable plastics have been ineffective.

As the world’s ability to handle the fast-paced manufacturing of disposable plastic products declines, plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental challenges of modern times. While disposable plastics have a short lifespan, they are still around in the environment long enough to pose a risk to animals and ecosystems. To tackle this menace, efforts are underway to develop a global treaty to be negotiated by the United Nations.

In Pakistan, the blanket ban on multipurpose plastic bags enraged retailers and restaurant owners the most. In Islamabad, the personnel of a well-known food outlet in the central business district had a brawl with the authorities that was widely covered in the media. Before August 2020, when the ban was actually enforced, the government had taken some other steps as well, such as issuing notices and distributing cotton and jute bags in markets. Some embassies also participated by distributing cotton bags in other markets in the capital. However, there was no plan to compensate manufacturers of plastic bags and their workers. The number of such people is likely to be many thousands. Moreover, the lack of a recycling infrastructure also compounds the problem.

To properly manage this problem, we must rethink our relationship with plastic, production lines, lifestyle and a future policy all at once. Municipalities and waste management companies need to rethink their role in the framework of contributing to the plastic waste cycle — from the enforcement of the ban, the promotion of alternatives, garbage collection and recycling, to coming up with workable ways to minimise the manufacture and use of single-use plastics.

Where businesses and owners of plastic industries are concerned, they need to be mindful of the environmental impact of single-use plastics and the prohibitions in place related to them. They should communicate their concerns to the policymakers, while putting systems in place that encourage the public to reduce their everyday reliance on plastic products.

However, as observed in the awareness campaigns in Islamabad, the most important factor for stemming the use of disposable plastics was the public that voluntarily switched to more sustainable products such as cloth bags. Keeping this in mind, perhaps it would be useful to relaunch the awareness campaign irrespective of the effectiveness of the plastic ban itself. If repeated enough times, the message that plastics are bad for the environment and for us will surely be absorbed and result in a positive change in public behaviour.

The writer is a lecturer at National University of Modern Languages.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2022

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