Despite bans on manufacturing and consumption of plastic bags in the country, plastic bags are seen, used and sold everywhere
If a mountain could dwarf the highest peak in your country, it would be a stack of plastic if all of it were to be heaped at a single point. Plastics have sneaked into our everyday lives without much realisation of the environmental ramifications of the change. Easy availability and unsuspected durability have turned plastics into favourite materials for countless products all over the world. According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), plastic production and use have grown exponentially since the 1950s, with around nine million people employed globally in polymer production and plastic processing industries. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), currently, the world produces 430 million metric tonnes of plastics every year. Of these, two-thirds are short-lived products which become waste after single use. Plastic production is set to triple by 2060 if business continues as usual.
Environmental hazards of plastic are multifarious but often glossed over. Plastic has detrimental effects on human health that take their toll on millions of lives every year. Impact of plastic on aquatic life in oceans is an example to this. According to a study, about 8 million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the oceans globally. In 2012, it was estimated that there was approximately 165 million tonnes of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Several billion nurdles (manufactured plastic pellets used in the plastic products) are spilled into oceans each year. In the process of degradation, toxic chemicals leach into waters from some plastics. The largest ocean-based source of plastic pollution is discarded fishing gear (including traps and nets), which is estimated to be up to 90 percent of plastic debris in some area.
Pakistan is no exception to plastic pollution. Pakistan produced 3.9 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2020, over 65 percent of which was mismanaged. 18 percent of municipal solid waste produced in Pakistan is plastics. Only 3 percent of plastic used by the manufacturing industry in Pakistan is recycled material. Once commonly used, dwarf palm leaves made hand carry baskets and paper bags have now been completely replaced by plastic bags. The presence of these plastic bags is now ubiquitous. Starting from shops, plastic bags are seen flying in streets, floating on water bodies, tangled in trees, blocking sewerage networks and choking trachea of aquatic life in sea. Mass production, low cost and easy access have turned plastics into a major hazard.
According to a survey report of the Environment Protection Department, Pakistan currently uses 55 billion plastic bags a year. The amount is increasing by 15 percent each year. Through such enormous use, plastic bags have created their own economy. The same report discloses that there are more than 8,000 plastic manufacturing units in the country. The report reveals that 160,000 people are directly and 600,000 were indirectly dependent on this industry. The plastic used in grocery store bags takes over 100 years to degrade. Some complex materials used in these bags may take between 100 and 600 years to decompose. It is estimated that food wrappers and containers produce 31.15 percent of pollution and plastic bags contribute 11.18 percent of environmental pollution. Some of these plastics make their way to our bodies. Scientists have found microplastics in 114 marine species. Around a third of these reach our food plates. We also drink microplastics via bottled water. The WHO had published shocking research in 2018 confirming the presence of microplastics in 90 percent of bottled water. Lab tests of 259 samples revealed that only 17 were free of plastics.
The plastic bags industry is powerful enough to flout the bans announced amid thundering applause. The federal and provincial governments in Pakistan have proscribed plastic bags but these are openly produced and sold everywhere. The Sindh government banned the manufacturing, production, purchase, sale and use of polyethylene bags for the first time in 1994. The Punjab Institute for Conservation of Environment placed a similar ban in 1995. The Balochistan government completely banned and prohibited the use of polythene bags throughout the province in 2001 through the Balochistan Prohibition on Use and Sale of Polythene Bags 2001 Ordinance. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Department of Industries has also banned the manufacturing of polythene bags across the province.
Plastic pollution permeates into our lives in numerous ways. According to a World Bank report Plastic Waste: A journey down the Indus River basin in Pakistan, released in 2022, more than 90 percent of plastic waste from sample sites in the upper Indus basin ends up in the Indus River. It is estimated that the upper Indus basin generates around 35,000 tonnes of waste every year, of which 10 percent is expected to be plastic. The same report reveals that around 27 percent of the plastic waste generated in Hyderabad ends up in the Indus River.
Scientists are working on means of ending plastic. Research is focusing on reuse, recycling and reorienting. A recent report of the United Nations Environment Programme, Turning off the tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy, estimates that by 2040 a new plastic economy could create 700,000 additional jobs; improve livelihoods for millions of workers in informal settings and could result in approximately $1.3 trillion (10.3 percent) savings in direct public and private costs between 2021 and 2040. Research has also proved that plastics can be used as construction material for roads. By adding finely sized shredded waste plastic, the asphalt mixture and bitumen perform better than the conventional mix.
Some nature-based products can substitute chemically produced plastics. Tonnes of everyday use plastic can be replaced with bio-degradable materials. If governments promote environment friendly alternatives, it can create a large green economy with millions of new jobs and healthy lives.
The writer is a civil society professional. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org