Plastic Pakistan

Published: July 23, 2019
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The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

Victor Vescovo is a businessman based in Dallas, Texas. The wealthy businessman is not just a private equity investor, but also a deep sea explorer. Earlier this year, Victor went in the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean, the Mariana Trench and logged in 35,853 feet (about 11 km) below the surface. Deep in the dark depths of the Pacific, Victor found at least three new species of marine animals and something that should not be there: a plastic bag.

Victor is not the first one to find single-use plastic in the deepest parts of the ocean. It is in fact the third time. Approximately eight million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year. To put this in perspective, this is equal to 15 fully loaded trucks every minute. Beyond environment, studies have shown that increase in plastic is contributing directly to climate change. The production of plastic increases the carbon footprint to the point that by 2050, nearly 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions will come from plastic production. Both environmental degradation and climate change already impact our weather, our crops, our rivers and our health.

Two days ago, the Government of Pakistan decided to make it much worse.

The new directive to use plastic wrapping on all checked luggage is both bizarre and terribly misguided. Firstly, if the issue is safety of the bags and its contents, then there needs to be better training of luggage handlers, more oversight of their activities and crackdown on individuals who steal valuable goods. I have traveled the world, and visited some of the most impoverished parts of the world which are struggling due to colonialism and corruption, yet have never seen a mandatory bag wrapping policy. Perhaps there are a few places where it may exist, but that is hardly what we need to emulate.

Secondly, the environmental cost of this plastic, and the added cost to the climate is going to be disastrous. In a country where trash handling remains awful, recycling is non-existent and general awareness about environmental protection is weak, this policy is going to make matters much worse. The argument that some may make that this policy was crafted in the previous government, is hardly a sound one. Does that make things any better? The whole point was to have a clear break from the past with better policies.

Thirdly, the price is being passed down to the consumers. While some may say that this is a small amount, every little bit matters. No one likes to see new charges sprung upon them at the last minute, least of all those who may be of modest means and it is important to think beyond our own privilege here. Who owns the company that is getting the contract, and is going to benefit, is also worth noting.

The saddest part of the tale is complete silence from our honourable ministers of climate change and science, both of whom have little formal training or any experience in the disciplines of environment or science, but are quick to charge on the throats of the opposition with vicious (and often personal) attacks from time to time. Do they agree with this idea? Do they think that we ought to pollute our environment and waterways with cheap plastic?

The Honourable Minister of Science recently said that there would be a big conference on science in Pakistan, and he intends to invite industry leaders including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. The problem is that it is well known that such conferences do little to change the science culture in the country — and also that none of them are card carrying scientists, should also be noted. What changes science culture is the painstaking work of systematically motivating youngsters to be curious, to be inspired and solve big problems. Perhaps I am missing the strategy here — maybe the idea is to first create new massive problems and then motivate the younger generation. If that is the mission, we are certainly getting the first part right.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 23rd, 2019.

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