Pakistan’s plastic paradox

Pakistan stands at the forefront of this crisis, generating a staggering 3.3 million tonnes of plastic waste annually

By Zainab Naeem
April 18, 2024
A heap of plastic waste can be seen on the shore. — AFP/File

“Only we humans make waste that nature can't digest,” says American oceanographer Charles Moore, who is famous for bringing the world’s attention to the Great Garbage Patch – a vast expanse of the floating plastic debris in the North Pacific Ocean.


This year’s Earth Day’s (April 22) theme ‘Plastics versus Planet’ resonates louder than ever, encouraging nations to confront the existential threat posed by plastic pollution. In Pakistan, with the highest percentage of mismangaed plastic waste (3.3 million tonnes) in South Asia, it is crucial to heed this call and commit to robust measures to tackle plastic pollution.

Plastic waste is not just an eyesore; it is a grave threat to our ecosystem and health. From the depths of the Mariana Trench to the placenta of expectant mothers, microplastics pervade every corner of our planet, leaving no refuge untouched.

The annual production of plastic is on an alarming trajectory, with projections indicating a staggering 500 million tonnes by 2050. Single-use plastics dominate this consumption, exacerbating the already dire situation. The climate crisis further amplifies the urgency of addressing plastic pollution, as highlighted by a recent report by GRID-Arendal-UNEP on the climate impacts of plastics.

Plastics contribute substantially to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for approximately 4.0 per cent of all global emissions annually. This impact spans every stage of the plastic lifecycle, from extraction to disposal, underscoring the critical need to manage plastic waste efficiently in the fight against climate change.

Pakistan stands at the forefront of this crisis, generating a staggering 3.3 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. With inadequate infrastructure for waste collection, reuse, and recycling, much of this waste ends up in landfills, dumpsites, and water bodies, perpetuating a cycle of environmental degradation.

The consequences are dire, threatening not only our natural resources but also the wellbeing of present and future generations.The most prevalent single-use plastic waste polluting the environment, includes drinking bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, lids, straws, stirrers, and foam takeout containers.

Pakistan’s most plastic waste ends up in landfills, dumping sites and water bodies, thus causing serious concerns to the environment and human health.

This concentration has contributed to a surge in microplastic contamination in waterways, posing grave hazards to human and aquatic life. Rejected industrial fractions, urban solid waste, and agricultural residues emerge as primary sources of plastic pollution in Pakistan, perpetuating an environmental crisis with far-reaching consequences.

Despite efforts through policies like the Single Use Plastic Prohibition Regulations 2023, challenges in enforcement persist, hindering the effectiveness of regulatory measures. The Punjab Plastic Strategy, though well-intentioned, requires reconsideration because rushing into policies like extended producer responsibility (EPR) within an impractical six-month timeframe may not yield the desired outcomes.

This strategy mandates producers to establish a system for the collection of plastic waste generated by their products, accompanied by financial and physical liability. However, this compressed timeline may not offer an adequate opportunity for producers to develop a functional system, particularly given the requisite investment and infrastructure needs.

While the SRO to ban single-use plastic bags in Islamabad is a step in the right direction, its efficacy in addressing alternatives to plastic bags and municipal solid waste pollution remains limited.

Besides the plastic waste management crisis, the lack of investments in recycling infrastructure poses a significant challenge in Pakistan. The recycling industry, heavily dependent on the informal sector and labour provided by Afghan migrants, faces considerable obstacles following the government’s decision to repatriate Afghan refugees. With a considerable portion of plastic collection and recycling operations relying on Afghan waste pickers, the recycling sector has experienced a notable decline.

The departure of Afghan labourers has also led to heightened labour costs, further straining the already fragile recycling industry. This interplay of factors has created a precarious situation, underscoring the interconnectedness of migration policies, labour dynamics, and environmental sustainability efforts.

Amidst these challenges, initiatives like the Living Indus Initiative offer a beacon of hope. One of the interventions proposed by the Living Indus Initiative is the establishment of ‘zero plastic waste cities’ within the Indus Basin which presents a tangible pathway towards sustainable urban development.

This initiative aligns directly with Pakistan’s commitment to the Global Plastic Action Plan (GPAP), which seeks to foster a circular economy for plastics. By leveraging multi-pronged approaches encompassing regulatory regimes, technological innovation, economic incentives, and institutional capacity-building, the Living Indus Initiative seeks to catalyze transformative change in plastic waste management in Pakistan.

The plastic crisis in Pakistan is not insurmountable. Many developing countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Bolivia, and some neighbouring South Asian countries have successfully addressed their plastic waste challenges, offering valuable lessons for Pakistan. These efforts highlight the importance of eco-friendly packaging, education campaigns, incentivized engagement, and decentralized systems in tackling plastic waste and promoting the conversion of waste to resources globally.

One of the primary reasons for extensive mismanagement of plastic waste in Pakistan stems from behavioural challenges. People tend to favour plastic products due to their easy availability and affordability. However, amidst these challenges lie opportunities for meaningful change.

There are many approaches which can be adopted for effective strategies for plastic waste management. For example, deposit refund schemes, as exemplified in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, incentivize recycling by reimbursing consumers for returning plastic beverage bottles. A few decades ago, this scheme was practiced for returning glass bottles in Pakistan, however, it was discontinued when PET bottles became common. Such schemes not only reduce littering but also promote a circular economy for plastics, ensuring that valuable resources are recovered and reused.

Similarly, green public procurement (GPP) initiatives harness the purchasing power of governments to drive sustainability in plastic usage. By integrating environmental criteria into procurement processes, public authorities can incentivize the adoption of eco-friendly alternatives and promote responsible waste management practices. This approach, as evidenced in the European Union, has the potential to catalyze market demand for sustainable products and foster innovation in plastic waste management.

Community-level initiatives, backed by collaboration between local governments, waste management companies and the corporate sector, can empower citizens to embrace sustainable practices and reduce their reliance on single-use plastics. By leveraging mass awareness campaigns and educational outreach, Pakistan can instigate a cultural shift towards more responsible consumption habits.

Additionally, the government needs to work on a national waste management strategy to improve basic waste management and establish efficient waste collection and sorting at-source mechanism.

Also as the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee’s fourth session draws near, slated to adopt a comprehensive, legally binding instrument on plastic pollution in Canada this April, Pakistan needs to align its actions regarding plastic waste crises with international commitments.

Pakistan needs to urgently address its national-level plastic management. Only through concerted action at both the federal and provincial levels and private-sector engagement can Pakistan effectively mitigate its plastic waste crisis and contribute to a cleaner, more sustainable future for generations to come.

The writer heads the SDPI’s ecological sustainability and circular economy programme and is also associated with the UN Living Indus Initiative as a consultant on plastic pollution.