Plastic, like diamonds, is forever. But not all plastic is created equal. Each year, we produce over 300 million tons of plastic globally. About half of this is only used once, but takes 400 years or more to degrade. Continuing on the same trajectory, it is estimated that landfills will have 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste by 2050. For context, that is 3,500 times heavier than the Empire State Building.
The ripple effects of such unchecked plastic consumption and waste will overwhelm the natural ecosystem and make terms like ‘plastic planet’ a reality instead of a morbid dystopian supposition. Eight million tons of plastic waste are discarded in the oceans each year. Already, over 90 percent of seabirds have eaten plastic. But birds are not the only ones being adversely affected. Plastic threatens human health too, research finds. From cancer to compromised immune systems, each step in the plastic production process is potentially hazardous.
Things are worseat home. Pakistan produces ‘two K2s’ worth of plastic waste annually, or 3.3 million tons. It is the second largest producer of plastics in South Asia, second only to India. The River Indus, the life-giving pride of our nation, is the second biggest recipient of plastic waste in the world. We are one of the worst offenders in terms of mismanagement, or inadequately disposed, plastic waste in South Asia.
Clearly, better management is in order. Nations said to manage plastic waste efficiently secure it in landfills, even if it is not recycled, rather than letting it slowly encroach onto the roads and, ultimately, the waterways. A precursory glance at the roadside landfills of Pakistan reveals that is not the case.
We can find an assortment of plastic debris, junk and, if we go early enough, informal scavengers as one of the mainstays of this sordid landscape. However, there is one thing that is surprisingly absent from these dumps—PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. Our plastic waste consists overwhelmingly of single-use plastic polythene bags.
The formal and informal waste management sector plays an integral role in collecting and recycling plastic waste. But all plastic waste is not created equal. Whereas certain types of plastic waste (such as PET bottles) can be recycled at least ten times, other types of waste cannot be—or are not—recycled. Before jumping on a misguided idée fixe of reducing plastic consumption using injudicious and ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, it is important to acknowledge the experts' call for a lifecycle approach to managing plastic pollution.
What is not quantified cannot be managed. In Pakistan, WWF-Pakistan and The Coca-Cola Foundation joined hands to address the need for accurate data of PET waste generated. The report was launched in early Decemberin Islamabad with Zartaj Gul, Minister of State for Climate Change, as the guest of honour.
Fahad Ashraf, VP and General Manager for Pakistan and Afghanistan region at The Coca-Cola Export Corporation said that we in Pakistan needed to understand the current landscape of plastic waste management so challenges and opportunities could be effectively identified and policymaking could effectively tackle plastic waste pollution to help create a sustainable future for all.
The scoping study was conducted to understand the amount of PET waste currently being collected and recommend solutions to tackle plastic pollution. Through extensive research in 10 major cities and a holistic approach of addressing all the major stakeholders (including scavengers, junk dealers, formal waste collectors, commercial sector representatives, educational institutions and household consumers) a baseline was established regarding the full cycle of PET waste in the country. Fifty eight percent of the stakeholders in the supply chain reported that zero percent of PET waste ends up in water bodies and dumpsites, whereas 82 percent confirmed their willingness to provide PET to a recovery facility. On average, waste-pickers earn Rs25-40 for each kilogram of PET bottles collected.
Contrast this to the responses by households in all major cities, such as Karachi, Lahore, Rahim Yar Khan and even Gilgit. In each of these locations, household surveys confirmed that the major component of plastic waste is plastic bags, despite legislative measures being taken by the country. The study has been eye-opening in more ways than one, underscoring an intense reliance on informal measures and the glaring lack of a unified approach to waste management.
However, most notably, it heralds a new phase in the fight to mitigate plastic pollution—a phase of extended producer responsibility. The Coca-Cola Foundation’s 2018 initiative “World Without Waste”, an ambitious product packaging policy pledging the recycling or collecting equivalent for every bottle sold, is the first step in the right direction. And the pioneering scoping study is the second.
What we make of it, however, is up to us. Data is powerful, but change must be driven by collective ownership from all the stakeholders involved. The future of our nation—and planet—depends on it.
The writer is an educationist and environmental activist