Rethinking our approach to the global plastic pollution crisis is pivotal to preventing further environmental challenges caused by its use
he Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area comprising 1.6 million square kilometres of plastic waste. It has been in the news recently as researchers have found a coastal ecosystem, including tiny crabs, thriving on it in the middle of the ocean. More than twice the size of the geographical area of Pakistan, the patch is the largest accumulation of plastics anywhere in the world.
While organic material in the ocean decomposes and sinks in a matter of weeks to months, the plastic debris can float for years. The concern is that without concrete global action, plastic waste conglomeration will continue to grow and severely impact our ecological well-being.
Globally, around nine percent of plastic waste is recycled, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. The rest ends up as waste. While efforts are under way to develop a legally binding global plastics treaty that combats plastic waste and accompanying environmental degradation, we have a long way to go before these efforts bear fruit.
Plastic’s widespread presence in our everyday lives has led to worrying impacts on both the environment and human beings. It is evident that the environmental consequences of plastic pollution are alarming. Because plastic does not break down naturally, it is capable of persisting in landfills or oceans for several hundred years. It can also break into tiny toxic micro-plastics which infiltrate ecosystems and harm our ecology and the environment.
In particular, marine life is suffering significantly as countless animals ingest and are entangled in plastic debris, resulting in significant damage to the entire ecosystem. The impacts of plastic on human health are equally concerning. Research has indicated that certain plastics may be capable of releasing chemicals into food and beverages, which, if ingested, can cause hormonal imbalances and adverse health effects. The presence of micro-plastics in drinking water, food and air has raised serious concerns about their long-term impact on human well-being.
In Pakistan, many waterways and natural streams are clogged with solid waste, resulting in urban flooding in many of our cities. When the E11 sector of Islamabad was flooded in 2021, it left plastic bags strewn across residences. The message was clear. Unless we manage our solid waste properly and reduce our reliance on plastics, the wrath of nature will continue to target us.
Recently, the administration has banned the use of single-use plastics in the capital city. This is not the first time such an action has taken. Previous attempts at banning plastic bags, for example, have not worked. The question remains as to the efficacy of the plastic ban this time around.
Ban on plastic products has been a widely debated topic for years now. One facet of the discussion is whether such bans are capable of controlling and curbing environmental pollution. On the flip side, some discussions question the effectiveness of such bans. Even though the intentions behind the bans on plastic are noble, there are several reasons why such bans might not come off as effective as intended.
Over the years, several forms of regulations have been enacted in various countries to control plastic use. Complete bans on single-use plastic bags were imposed by some countries. Restrictions on the use of plastic straws, cutlery or styrofoam containers were imposed by others. The effectiveness of these bans has varied, depending on several factors, including the level of enforcement, public awareness and the availability of alternatives.
In some countries, these bans were successful in significantly reducing plastic waste and encouraging the adoption of more sustainable practices. For instance, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to impose a ban on thin plastic bags in 2002 after they were found to be a significant factor in flooding during the monsoon season. Similarly, Rwanda demonstrated a strong commitment to environmental protection and imposed a ban on plastic bags in 2008 after recognising the serious impact of plastic pollution on its landscapes and wildlife. The ban was successful and resulted in a noticeable improvement.
Despite the bans, plastic is widely favoured by both businesses and consumers around the world. One of the primary reasons is its low production cost and widespread availability. Consequently, plastic items frequently enter the market through illegal channels, even in areas with stringent bans in place. Although there are several eco-friendly alternatives to plastic, such as jute bags, cotton bags or reusable containers, their availability in the market is often limited. The limited availability of these alternatives makes it challenging for consumers to switch, especially in areas where plastics have become deeply ingrained in daily life.
The imposition of bans is one thing; their effectiveness is another. Bans will only be fruitful if an effective approach to holding the producers accountable for the environmental impact can be agreed to. A focus on extended producer responsibility (EPR) is incentivising environment-friendly design so that the products are easily recyclable. The EPR programmes are a good way to motivate most companies to design products that are readily recyclable or reusable. This also encourages them to find ways to reduce unnecessary packaging and layering of products, use more sustainable materials and actively promote circular economy principles.
Additionally, instead of banning the use of plastic bags alone, there should be a comprehensive approach that involves prohibiting the production and distribution of such bags. Banning their use can also lead to the emergence of black markets or the shift to less sustainable alternatives. It is essential to establish a national consensus on single-use plastics among the federal capital territory, provinces and the autonomous territories of AJK and GB. Without such a consensus, the effectiveness of the ban may be compromised due to policy gaps and deficiencies in the system. Similarly, implementing and enforcing a complete ban on plastic products can be extremely challenging for authorities, particularly in regions with limited resources.
A lack of stringent enforcement can lead to non-compliance and undermine the effectiveness of the bans. Hence, collaboration among the administrative units and coordinated efforts by all stakeholders hold the key to effective control of plastic pollution in the country.
To be effective a ban requires a significant shift in public awareness and behaviour. Educating the public about the environmental consequences of plastic pollution and promoting responsible waste management practices is crucial for long-term success. Implementing reward schemes and establishing exchange programmes to encourage the recycling of plastic items for incentives or sustainable alternatives are all examples of interventions that can help shift public behaviour towards sustainable approaches.
Sweden, for example, offers recycling incentives through its ‘pant’ or deposit system, which rewards consumers for recycling plastic bottles, cans and glass containers at designated collection points. Similarly, Germany has its own bottle deposit system, known as “pfand”. The system requires consumers to pay a small deposit upfront while purchasing beverages in plastic or glass bottles. Consumers can get the deposit back on returning the empty containers. Pfand system has significantly increased recycling rates, ultimately reducing the plastic waste in the country. Pakistan used to have a similar system in place when only glass bottles were used by soft drink companies. However, there is no such incentive in place with plastic bottles.
Alternatively, taxes and levies can be effective in the reduction of plastic use. A study on public policies on plastic bags conducted in the year 2019 revealed that the imposition of taxes and levies effectively reduced plastic use in Ireland by 90 percent and in Denmark by 66 percent. 74-90 percent reductions were observed in South Africa, Belgium, Hong Kong, the UK and Portugal and approximately 50 percent reductions in Botswana and China.
Ireland’s journey of controlling plastic pollution is both remarkable and inspiring. The country introduced the Plastic Bag Tax, under which 15 cents were charged for each plastic bag used by the consumers. The idea was to make these bags costly and encourage the users to look for sustainable alternatives. An awareness campaign was also launched in parallel to the Plastic Bag Tax, highlighting the hazards of plastic. The revenue generated from the tax was used to fund the environment protection projects. The tax was increased over the years to reach 22 cents, thus reinforcing the message.
The plastic product bans should be looked at through the lens of practicality and effectiveness. It is essential to consider the practical challenges tied to the bans and explore all alternatives. Plastic pollution control requires a multi-faceted approach that involves extended producer responsibility, promotion of eco-friendly alternatives, public sensitisation and a national consensus on the enforcement of the regulations.
The authors work for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Pakistan