One hopes that the new government will pay heed to recent attempts by its predecessors to finally begin addressing the problem of plastic bags, which has become a major environmental problem for the country.
Neighbourhoods across the country’s cities, peri-urban areas and even the remote villages are inundated by discarded plastic bags, which will take centuries for natural decomposition. These plastic bags pose multiple threats. Not only does the production of plastic bags require millions of gallons of petroleum, their unregulated disposal by burning releases lethal toxins causing air pollution and related health issues. Carrying edible goods in plastic bags — which is a common practice around the country — is also hazardous because of the components of plastic bags. Plastic bags pose a serious danger to birds and marine mammals, several thousands of which die each year, after swallowing discarded plastic bags. The bags also choke up sewage and drainage systems, further aggravating our sanitation management challenges.
The Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a study in 2004 which estimated 55 billion plastic bags were being produced and used annually, and projected that plastic bag usage would reach 112 billion by 2015.
Introduced in the country back in 1982, plastic bag usage spread rapidly because of low cost and convenience. However, the lack of effective recycling and the multiple problems being caused by these bags indicate the need to curb their spread urgently.
It took the EPA quite some time to draft restrictions under the Prohibition of non-degradable Plastic Products (Manufacture, Sale and Usage) Regulation, 2013. Part of the problem was that non-degradable plastics are not only used by ordinary consumers but also have extensive usage in packaging of food, mulches, beverages, leather, textiles, machinery and other products. Subsequent to numerous meetings with plastic bag manufacturers and user associations, a consensus was reached on using oxo-biodegradable bag technology, which can make plastic bags degrade faster. Regulations were finally unveiled earlier this year and the Ministry of Climate Change was tasked with coordinating with the provincial governments to introduce degradable plastics.
It is argued that the new legislation will not only help curb environmental and health related problems within the country but also bring trade benefits since the ban would enable exporters to comply with the environmentally-friendly international packaging requirements. It is yet unclear when compulsory production of these bio-degradable bags will commence.
However, since the recent governmental attention to this issue, large department stores like Metro Cash & Carry and international food chains like KFC and McDonald’s have started using paper bags. Other major brands, including Dawn Bread, HyperStar, Sazgar, and ICI Polyester, also reportedly switched to using biodegradable plastic bags. Whether other big and smaller businesses and industries will follow suit, and stick to this resolve, remains to be seen.
The previous government had taken another ambitious step of trying to place a complete ban on plastic shopping bags in Islamabad, starting back in April, and prescribed fines for those found to be violating the ban. Media reports have since pointed out that shopkeepers in the federal capital are still commonly selling goods using plastic bags.
It was encouraging to note Sindh caretaker chief minister Justice (retd) Zahid Qurban Alavi’s announcement of banning the use of plastic bags as well but then, no official notification was issued by any of the relevant government departments subsequently to enforce this move.
Effectively implementing the plastic bag ban in Islamabad or in other big cities like Lahore, Karachi or Peshawar would be a major accomplishment, but doing so requires serious political will by the newly-elected federal and provincial governments.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 14th, 2013.