Efforts are on to make the capital free of one-time-use polythene bags, to rid the city of garbage and improve the environment.
The city with a population of around two million, according to 2018 census, is turning into heaps of garbage that mostly constitute of plastic shopping bags. These garbage heaps can be spotted in various localities except a few posh sectors. The city, itself, does not have a landfill site, according to the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials of the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT).
This increasing garbage is choking the city’s soil and waste management system, Ministry of Climate Change has moved new regulations for the ICT to completely get rid of plastic bags. Earlier, a 2013 regulation allowed bio-degradable (dissolvable) plastic bags but later it came to be known that such bags do not dissolve fully but divide into micro-plastic (very small pieces). In 2013, manufacturing, trade, supply, distribution, production, purchase and sale of any non-degradable plastic product or non-degradable plastic itself was probihited.
“The Environment Protection Agency has moved Ministry of Climate Change for complete ban on all types of plastic bags. Polythene Bag Regulations 2019 will put a ban on manufacturing, import, sale, purchase, storage and usage of polythene bags once the parliament passes the bill which is expected in near future. We hope that after the regulation is passed we will be able to implement it within this year,” says a senior official of the Pak-EPA. Shopping bags choke waterways and do not decompose at all. The draft, discussed in the parliament, also suggests fine to the people using plastic bags.
Overall, the usage of non-degradable plastic is quite high in the country. Though there is no official data on plastic bags consumption in Islamabad, an old survey of the Punjab Environment Protection Department says around 55 billion plastic bags are used in a year in Pakistan with its use increasing by 15 percent every year. The average production of polythene bags is 250 to 500 kilogram per day. Globally, around five trillion plastic bags are consumed every year. There are many countries in the world that have completely banned plastic bags such as Kenya, Brazil and Argentine.
The question is what will they substitute plastic bags with? How practical will be the substitution? How to prepare people for this and offer them substitutes. This is the biggest challenge to this plan.
“It is very difficult to change the habits. We have been using plastic bags for many years so making a shift will be a challenge. Still, we should go for this,” says Shahid Sheikh, a shopkeeper in Aabpara Market of the capital city, welcoming this move. “These plastic bags are hazardous for environment and biodiversity. They are choking our solid waste and affecting environment. They must be banned,” he says, urging the government to do it for the betterment and safety of next generations. He suggests keeping cloth bags in our vehicles for grocery and other shopping. An awareness campaign is needed to educate public on this.
At the moment, in the ICT, some clothing brands have started using paper bags as corporate social responsibility campaign. The Pak-EPA, in collaboration with Capital Development Authority (CDA), has already met with traders, market representatives and Sunday bazaars to create awareness. “We are also planning to run this campaign in schools, public places and entry points of the city,” the Pak-EPA official says.
“The move is welcome. Complete ban on plastic bags is needed which requires not allowing the plastic industry to manufacture or import flat polythene bags for general consumption. There are bags being used for industrial packing, municipal and hospital waste. These are thick and will take more time to decompose as compared to bags which are currently being used,” says Munir Ahmed, who regularly writes on environment. The ministry has no plan to ban plastic bags for hospital waste and garbage collection, he says. The government should encourage import of craft paper on subsidised rate to make paper bags of different weightage for different kinds of general consumption, he suggests.
Earlier, in Hunza, a beautiful district of northern areas of Pakistan, government with the help of civil society announced ban on the use of plastic bags in April. The authorities have made use, export, import or purchase of plastic bags a punishable offence. Implementation remains a challenge. Visitors to Hunza say there is no open display of plastic bags in the market but they are used secretively, indicating changing social habits is a huge task.
In the past, there has been such bans on plastic bag use in Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan too but could not be implemented. While, this January, in Peshawar, local administration, as a first step, announced ban on the use of plastic shopping bags in mega malls and medical stores because they choke drains and also cause poor sanitation and water-borne diseases.
Planning for plastic bag free Islamabad is a challenge that may take some time but can set a good example if truly implemented.