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Parting with plastic

Is an imperfect ban on plastic bags in the country better than none?

Parting with plastic
Will the ban have a positive impact? — Photo by Rahat Dar

On October 2, 2019, plastic bag stakeholders staged a demonstration in Lahore against a complete ban on plastic and accused the government of stealing their jobs and their children’s daily bread. The Special Committee of the Plastic Bags Association demanded to know why the government isn’t seeking to regulate the use of plastic bags by banning those below 50 microns in thickness, like France, Italy, and India instead of an eventual blanket ban on all types of plastic bags.

Most countries in the world have gotten on the plastic ban bandwagon by regulating the composition and thickness of the bags. Thicker quality plastic bags are more expensive to produce and incentivise the consumer to not treat them as irresponsibly as thinner, single-use plastic bags. Such a regulation could also have been accompanied by a requirement that manufacturers of plastic bags assist the state in the post-use disposal of plastic. Many jobs that have now become precarious could have been saved through the regulation of plastic and by rechanneling employment towards the recycling and solid waste management sector.

It is obvious that the banning of plastic bags is not a misplaced priority; just a poorly-executed one.

Making polyethylene is an energy-intensive process which emits large amounts of greenhouse gases directly responsible for global warming. Composed of highly-resistant synthetic polymers, plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to completely degrade. Instead, they break into tiny particles, invisible to the naked eye and contaminate the soil and waterways — reaching us eventually through the food we eat. According to researchers, every second person on the planet could have microplastic in their body; but scientists don’t yet know how our metabolism and immunity will react to increased concentrations.

But, plastic or polythene bags have been one of those critical daily use items that we have not really thought about.

The complete proposed ban on plastic bags after 6 months will also leave an estimated 1 million people, working in over 8,000 factories in the Punjab alone, jobless. Many of these jobs can be saved through the regulation of plastic and by rechanneling employment towards the recycling and solid waste management sector.

Acknowledging the cost of plastic bags for the environment and our health is difficult because of how closely our daily lives have been tied to their use. UN estimates claim that 10 million plastic bags are used globally every minute; and according to a survey report of the Environment Protection Department, Pakistan uses 55 billion bags annually. It is expected that at the current rate of consumption, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by the year 2050.

In our physical surroundings, plastic bags wreak havoc by clogging and choking drains to disturb sewerage systems. This poses the threat of urban flooding by making rain water flood the streets instead of flowing through the drainage system. Lightweight plastic bags get easily picked by the wind and travel long distances to pollute the environment. Ingestion of plastic bags by birds, grazing livestock and marine mammals may prove fatal. Lastly, unattractive polythene bags remain a persistent eyesore.

The plastic ban should have been implemented in well thought-out phases, focused ideally on regulating plastic as opposed to banning it – at least till the time Pakistan can become competent in the manufacturing and ready availability of plant-based biodegradable alternatives or can boast of a well-oiled recycling infrastructure.

The government could have deterred single use plastic bags by imposing higher taxes on them and dedicating the monies towards improving our waste management and recycling systems. In Botswana, the consumption of plastic bags decreased by 50 percent after a tax was imposed on them in 2007.  In Ireland, in 2002, plastic bag usage decreased by 90 percent after a fee was levied on them.

Dr Imran Khalid from the SDPI, correctly suggests that the main problem is the solid waste management system in our cities. In a conversation, he conceded that the government should have approached the plastic ban by prioritising an efficient and sustainable recycling system first. Plastic waste needs to be segregated at landfills and recycled in order to decrease its overall production in the long-term. He also highlighted the difficulties associated with implementing the plastic ban, identifying that many shopkeepers are continuing to surreptitiously use plastic bags but keep a misleading pile of alternative options stacked at the front of the shop in case of an inspection.

No one gives up on accustomed comfort unless they understand why they must. The strength of the plastic ban is seriously diminished because it lacks strong awareness vertebrae. Had the first and rolling stage of the plastic ban been a strenuous awareness campaign, cent red around explaining the lethal consequences of single-use plastic bags and incentivising the use of reusable bags, people would have made a calculated decision to embrace the plastic ban themselves. Right now, the dangers of single-use plastic bag consumption are paling in the face of inconvenience and few readily available alternatives.

Besides, we’re taking one step forward and two steps back, if we’re banning plastic bags but no one understands why they must themselves extend the ban to single-use plastic water bottles.

There is some interesting scientific backing against a complete ban on plastic bags as well. Producing plastic bags takes less water, fewer chemicals and actually produces less greenhouse gases than making cloth or paper bags. Washing reusable bags adds additional stresses on limited resources. According to Stanford University, to break even with the lower climate impacts of producing plastic bags, a paper bag needs to be used 3 times, while a cotton bag must be used 131 times.

The plastic ban in Pakistan could’ve had an extremely positive impact if a structured process and mechanism had been followed to institutionalise it. People need knowledge, time and incentive to acclimatise to drastic change. There is still an option to supplement the plastic ban with extensive awareness campaigns at an emergency scale to achieve some semblance of the desired result.

In its current state though, the plastic ban is a modern example of good intentions with poor planning wreaking havoc, because by ‘failing to prepare’…the government… ‘is preparing to fail’.

Sara Hayat

WhatsApp Image 2019-08-10 at 16.19.35
Sara Hayat is a lawyer. She focuses on climate change law and policy.

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