As the use of plastic products is on the rise in Pakistan, there seems to be a realisation among consumers as well as the government that use of certain products, such as plastic shopping bags, must be curtailed for their health and environmental hazards. But how practicable is it to ban plastic products?
Shoaib Munshi, Spokesperson Pakistan Plastic Manufacturers’ Association, (PPMA) says different provincial governments have announced ban on plastic bags but it will not be possible for them to implement these. “Most of them are allowing only the biodegradable shopping bags despite the fact that these have harmful additives like chromium added to them. The government must realise that this decision will lead to mass unemployment at a time when the country’s economy is already facing a crunch.”
Munshi says they have challenged this decision in court on the grounds that oxi biodegradable shopping bags are more harmful than the ordinary ones. “The industry has suggested to the government to increase the micron value of shopping bags to 45 and make them heavy so that they do not fly and enter sewers or water bodies.” He also suggests that the industry is ready to buy plastic waste for safe recycling if a proper mechanism is introduced to collect it through scavengers or government servants.The industry figures show a 15 percent to 17 percent annual growth rate in this sector. This growth is also due to the fact that annual per capita consumption of plastic products in the country is 6.5 kg. This is far less than the global average of 38 kg. In countries like the US and Germany, this figure is well above 100.
Rapid urbanisation, changing lifestyles, emerging shopping patterns where people shop on the go, the ease of using disposable packaging material/containers, cost effectiveness and low weight of plastic products, etc, make consumers opt for this product.
Plastic industry in Pakistan depends on raw materials that have to be imported, mainly from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Far Eastern Countries. It comes in the form of granules and resin that are treated at plastic units and moulded into different products. Basically, plastic is a petrochemical and extracted from crude oil. In addition to the imported raw material, many local manufacturers also depend on used plastic and plastic scrap to run their units. They use that in recycled form and violate laws governing these processes.
If we look at the range of plastic products, we find they are there in every sector. There are household utensils, stationery, auto-parts, agricultural products, appliances, computers, mobile phones and accessories, pumps, pipes, etc, that are either made of plastic or have components made of plastic. While use of plastic products has brought convenience to our lives, the challenge is the disposal of plastic products, especially the single-use ones like shopping bags. Made mostly of non-biodegradable materials, they may take hundreds of years to decompose. For this very reason these shopping bags contaminate soil if dumped in fields and so on. This calls for devising mechanisms and policies to promote safe plastic use and disposal.
The scale of the problem can be gauged from the briefing given by the former minister for climate change, Mushahidullah Khan, to the Senate of Pakistan during the last PML-N tenure. He told senators that as many as 55 billion plastic shopping bags were being used each year in Pakistan.
Referring to a national survey done by the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Khan said that around 160,000 persons were directly and 600,000 indirectly dependent on this industry.
This brings us to the question whether there are comprehensive laws in place to govern plastic production and its use in the country. Aisha Khan, Executive Director for Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change (CSCCC), thinks the situation is not satisfactory.”At the national level, the Environment Protection Act of 1997 refers only to polythene bags in the same category of other waste materials and calls for their management, etc, does not specifically mention other plastics or banning them.”
The Environment Policy (2005), she says, “makes no mention of plastic/polythene bags, etc. The provincial environment protection acts (such as in Sindh in 2004) call for the ban on non biodegradable plastic but are not enforced. Similarly, local government ordinances have specified fines for wrong disposal of waste and littering but due to weak enforcement and lack of political will, these have not been successful. Khan adds Sindh has also produced Prohibition of Non-degradable Plastic Products (Manufacturing, Sale and Usage) Rules, 2014 whose implementation is also questionable.
According to the ministry of climate change, plastics industry is the fifth largest employer in Pakistan and is poised for even more growth. Job security in this sector as well as its contribution to the economy is often cited as a reason of inaction on the issue of plastic. Independent sources believe it is among the top three best performing industries keeping in view that a cottage industry has also been developed where people are producing plastic shopping bags and other products. These home-based units are undocumented and informal.
Khan believes the debate about allowing bio-degradable plastic products also does not have much weight. She says while the global research on biodegradable plastics has made strides and has also been piloted in Pakistan, there is still room for error. According to a report, she says, oxi biodegradables were piloted in Islamabad on a large scale, but later it was found that these were more harmful to the environment than regular polythene bags.
Therefore, she believes, the focus should be on encouraging behaviour changes to make consumers to not rely on single use type plastics. Studies show that worldwide only 10 to 13 percent of plastic items are recycled and the nature of petroleum-based disposable plastic makes this process difficult. The recycling industry has to add pure plastic materials and chemicals to the used plastic to get the desired results. Anyhow, large multinationals are taking certain initiatives to set precedents. For example, Coca Cola has partnered with Adidas to produce shoes that are created from plastic harvested from the oceans. Unilever has reduced its plastic production by 29 percent in the past decade.
Nazifa Butt, Manager Environmental Assessmemt/Green Office Initiative, WWF, believes there is a lack of awareness among masses on safe plastic use that is aggravating the problem. “According to international standards, the type of plastic must be mentioned on each product. Usually there are 10 to 12 types of plastics that not only tell the quality but also provide guidance regarding recycling or use of a plastic product in microwave.” Local companies do not follow these standards; nevertheless, “multi-national companies are bound to follow because of international compulsions and monitoring mechanism”, she adds.
On relevant laws, Butt states that in Pakistan only the guidelines of 2004 are available that impose compulsion on local companies to not produce plastic less than 15 microns. In addition to it, the monitoring policy in the country is pathetic and there are no laws except Environment Protection Act that is insufficient to build a strong monitoring mechanism. “The concerned departments are facing financial constraints to be more efficient and productive; in fact, environment and associated matters have been neglected throughout by the governments.”
Shoaib Munshi, Spokesperson Pakistan Plastic Manufacturers’ Association, (PPMA) says different provincial governments have announced ban on plastic bags but it will not be possible for them to implement these. “Most of them are allowing only the biodegradable shopping bags despite the fact that these have harmful additives like chromium added to them. The government must realise that this decision will lead to mass unemployment at a time when country’s economy is already facing a crunch.”
Munshi says they have challenged this decision in court on the grounds that oxi biodegradable shopping bags are more harmful than the ordinary ones. “The industry has suggested to the government to increase the micron value of shopping bags to 45 and make them heavy so that they do not fly and enter sewers or water bodies.” He also suggests that the industry is ready to buy plastic waste for safe recycling if a proper mechanism is introduced to collect it through scavengers or government servants.
On the bans imposed by provinces, Naseem ur Rehman, Director, Environment Protection Department (EPD), Punjab says so far the provinces have made drafts but not yet implemented them which will be a big challenge. “While others are talking about allowing oxi biodegradable grade, the Punjab EPD is not recommending them because of their harmful nature,” he says, adding, “we have made it compulsory for plastic bag manufacturers to increase the micron value of bags to 45 and above.”
This, he says, will make the bags expensive and discourage people from using them. “Very few people will use shopping bags if they are asked to pay Rs 5 or above per piece.” He says the scavenger will also be interested in collecting these bags due to their weight, quality and value in the plastic scrap market and among the players of plastic recycling industry.
Another recommendation they have made is to strengthen the enforcement mechanism and make district administration and municipal authorities also responsible for monitoring plastic bag manufacturing industry. “At the moment only the staff of EPD is performing this duty at a limited scale due to their limitations,” he informs.