By Hiba Zaidi
Brilliantly narrated by renowned natural historian Sir David Attenborough, the final episode of BBC’s series Blue Planet II on plastic pollution, reinvigorated the debate on the irreversible damage plastic pollution is doing to our planet. A large part of the problem is single use plastics which include the ubiquitous disposable carrier bag.
Learning from examples in many countries, authorities in Islamabad, have put a ban on plastics. In the first phase carrier bags are banned effective from August 14, 2019. The ban does not yet extend to plastic bags for disposing garbage, hazardous waste and those that carry liquids and essential food items like dairy products. Fines have been imposed on the manufacturers, sellers and users of single use plastic carrier bags.
Principally the intention behind replacing single use plastic from our lives with more environmentally responsible options is appreciated. However, for effective implementation of the policy and making a successful transition to environmentally responsible alternatives, some issues need to be highlighted. One overarching issue is sequencing of actions that precede and follow enforcement of any policy.
To raise awareness among users of plastic bags, posters have been placed on roadsides that are more in English than Urdu. To reach out to larger segments of the population in Islamabad, it should cater to a diversity of audience. In our case, it ranges from people who may not be literate in English language and have overall low level of literacy to gas guzzling consumer classes bordering on climate change denial.
Banning plastic bags and putting a penalty on usage alone is not enough. Educating both young and adults through a more holistic awareness campaign is important. Organizing sessions in public and private educational institutes to educate young minds can be an effective strategy. There has been some useful discussion on social media, however it is more effective to reach certain demographics and the impact is diluted as it reaches a saturation point. Options such as more focused discussion on television and radio prime time shows and news bulletins may help disseminate relevant information to stakeholders at large. Formal events organized to raise awareness so far have limited participation and fail to propagate the information to a wider targeted audience.
Ease of transition and alternatives:
At the same time, the authorities need to ensure that the alternatives are readily available to make successful transition. As of now, many retailers do not know replacement options for polyene bags or where to source these from on sustained basis even when options are known. Launching an awareness campaign for retailers to address these issues will help them make a smoother transition to environmentally sustainable carrier bags.
In the first few days of the ban, authorities have been confiscating plastic bags from large shopping centers. Only a few high-end stores and retail chains have made the transition to both free and paid biodegradable or cloth bags. Others have switched to paper bags which is not a sound choice given that it takes cutting trees to source these and are not durable and waterproof to be used multiple times. Since the goal is to replace plastic bags with more environmentally friendly choices, there needs to be more understanding of which alternatives to plastic serve the purpose and those that do not. Factors such as recyclability and carbon footprint of producing the alternative bags need to be carefully studied.
Another aspect is impact of the ban on the manufacturers and sellers of plastic bags and possible loss of livelihood it can cause. How prepared are factories that are producing plastic bags to make transition to producing biodegradable bags? Is there an estimate for loss of business and jobs due to the ban, and are there any mitigating measures that are being implemented or considered to deal with this issue?
At the level of authorities, all ministries and agencies need to be taken on board when formulating a policy. A recent fortunately short-lived notification by Civil Aviation Authority, made plastic wrapping for all checked in luggage mandatory on all flights from Pakistan. This sent a contrary signal amid announcement of plastic bag ban.
Lessons learnt from designing policy, its implementation and challenges faced in enforcing plastic bags ban in Islamabad at various levels need to be documented. The knowledge and experience can be used as a case study by other cities and provinces in Pakistan that intend to eradicate single use plastic bags at an even larger scale in their jurisdictions.
About the author
Hiba Zaidi is one of the founding members of Learners’ Republic and public and economic policy practitioner. Email: [email protected]
1 More on plastic vs paper vs fabric bags debate http://www.allaboutbags.ca/papervplastic.html?fbclid=IwAR0-qFySrfmXgFqb6DQVDzuz7Mgbp5UEowlbFnAL_RQlqYkCS-FdLepcr9s