The menace of plastic bags

March 15, 2020

It wasn’t long before this petrol byproduct became a problem, both inland and undersea, threatening all animal and human lives

— Image: Supplied

Every new invention is meant to be for the benefit of humankind. Its misuse, however, can be catastrophic. When freshly introduced, Life magazine proudly announced: “Nylon goes under the sea”. But that was long after Hemmingway had written Old man and the Sea. The tired fishermen who previously struggled after every fishing trip, spreading and drying their nets made of cotton, were thrilled. Now nylon nets costing much less became standard. But it wasn’t long before this petrol byproduct became a problem, both inland and undersea, threatening all animal and human lives.

It is not common knowledge that all sea and river creatures, especially the sea-turtles, have to surface to have a fresh supply of oxygen. While the propagators were claiming a life of 300 years for nylon nets, they had grossly underestimated its longevity.

When applying this ‘invention’ to produce ‘shoppers’ or shopping bags and the various wrappings, a plethora of issues came up akin to Pandora’s box being banged from within by Hope.

Previously, Burma rubber, which is biodegradable, was used in various applications. But soon the industry switched to bakelite for electric switches, cellulite for photographic films and plastic for children’s toys and diverse gadgets, polythene for shopping bags and various coverings. Plastic, thus, spread its tentacles unnoticed like the novel coronavirus. But its implications were thought to be limited. It was still in the phase of its re-usage. Most merchandise previously used to be packed in paper, including bread and other bakery products.

Export or perish was the survival slogan of the war-ravaged Europe. Hence, many imported items came wrapped in plastic, displaying their company logos and addresses. People in the Third World would retain these for further use. Gradually, these came to be produced locally. My friend, a Pakistani, Dr Nazir Ahmed, an agriculturalist based in Istanbul way back in 1972, exclaimed that this was going to be a big problem for the environment because “it does not decompose”.

Its use brought about a big cultural shock as well. Previously, the people would pack their shopped items in their own cloth bags or baskets. Even meat was wrapped in big leaves and carried in paper bags, baskets or utensils. Children would merrily munch on freshly baked peanuts or chickpeas out of their pockets. Yogurt or milk was brought in tin-coated brass and copper utensils. Every bicycle was equipped with a basket made out of cane or bamboo. Motorbikes had a WWII surplus army-brand, sturdy canvas bag hanging on one side. Pedestrians too were obliged to carry a cloth bag. With the coming of plastic, the culture changed.

It was a love-hate relationship. The paper bags disappeared, and so did the baskets and cloth bags. Convenience and cost-effectiveness was the pretext. Yet, the economics was the bait. Even milk and yogurt began to be packed in plastic. All eateries — ‘takeaways’ — found it convenient to use plastic, the chemicals of which readily interact with the food nutrients. Even fruit and vegetables were now packed in this non-breathing material. Meat in plastic wrappings rots very soon.

The most dangerous is the black plastic bag. Milk manufactured and brought to the cities in blue plastic containers that originally came with imported chemicals, was a dangerous trend, thankfully banned and penalised by the FDA.

Even products like books and stationary items were unnecessarily wrapped in plastic. While I have been marketing my Old Lahore series of greeting cards without wrappers, the distributors demanded these to be wrapped in cellophane. I had to oblige. Such are the market forces.

Soon people realised that sewerage instead of flowing was emitting mysteriously exploding obnoxious gas bubbles. During the rains, the water raced back to the roads causing the asphalt to part company with the concrete. Drains were choked, blocked by plastics that had been thrown away irresponsibly.

In the countryside, farmers were struggling to sort out plastics which are a greater threat than even the locusts which are at least organic and edible and gladly devoured by the birds (tilliars). Plastic might not decompose even in thousands of years. In the cities the rag-pickers or waste collectors who are doing a great public service by eking out a living by scavenging through all sorts of litter, looking for recyclable materials, find the thermo pore and cellophane and the like unsalable.

The ladies too find it convenient to pack in plastic bags all their kitchen waste (which itself could be composted into an organic fertiliser) and the left-over food items to be dumped at neighbours’ doorsteps. Stray cats and dogs and birds ripping it apart feast on the rotting food contents and spread it around.

It took a very long time to pinpoint the culprit, the monster in the form of all sorts of black-gold byproduct. Even the prayer mats and caps can be seen in mosques these days. In fact, it has already penetrated into our lives. It is now beyond redemption and cannot be ostracized. The old man sewing and selling bags out of second-hand clothes outside Mochi Darwaza, seems to be the lone crusader. Baskets woven out of various straws and metal cans should once again be used. Resultantly, blocked sewerage will start to flow.

Recently, the courts have directed bigger shopping malls to stop dishing out plastic bags. The directive was actually welcomed. Now shopkeepers are not only saving on plastic bags which they gave away for free, but are also making money on the reusable bags which again are in fact made out of synthetic fibres. As for the paper envelopes, there is a word of caution: these are made from a forest product — the wood pulp, a process learnt from the wasps. It is not an agricultural product like the rice paper developed by the Chinese. Extensive paper use may endanger the already dwindling forest cover. The FAO has warned that forest systems are critically threatened. Pakistan is already a forest-poor country.

The crux of the matter is that this synthetic material cannot be eliminated altogether till such time as a more cost-effective and convenient alternative becomes available, says civil engineer, Israr Anwar, who studied in the US and is working for Environment Department there.

In the meantime we can limit its use and separate the waste at source, says Haseeb, who works for Albayrak and Ozpak solid waste collection company.

Still it can be argued that a return to baskets, made out of natural fibers, for fruits, vegetables and meats would be a good strategy. Cans and other metal utensils and porcelain bowls should do for yogurt and milk.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Jugnu whose polyester clothes fatally caught fire in the year 1953)


The writer is a painter, the founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and the former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Note: Free art classes at the House of NANNAs on Sundays. No age bar. Benches are provided. Bring your own lunch. Guest of the week: Mr Saeed Ahmad from Forest and Fisheries Department.

The menace of plastic bags