A strong start

Sep 03, 2019

Islamabad (Pakistan) September 03: THE Ministry of Climate Change's recent ban on the manufacturing, trading and sale of plastic bags in the nation's capital is a welcome Independence Day gift. Enforcement of the ban in letter and spirit will go a long way towards reducing plastic pollution in Islamabad.
Since polythene bags were first introduced in the 1960s, they have choked waterways and wildlife, wrapped themselves around trees and accumulated in gigantic garbage dumps in and around urban centres. Thousands of fish, birds, seals and turtles die because they mistakenly ingest plastic bags or become ensnared in nets, packing bands, and other items.
Single-use plastics can take several centuries to biodegrade completely. The resulting 'microplastics' find their way into drinking water sources and can become embedded in animal tissue. In humans, microplastics have been linked to cancer, infertility, hormonal imbalances and birth defects.
The plastic ban essentially applies to all single-use polythene bags commonly used for carrying groceries and other items. Shopkeepers are no longer allowed to provide plastic bags to consumers to carry their purchases.
Initially, I was sceptical about the effectiveness of the ban. Would the government really follow through? I was pleasantly surprised to see the enforcement agencies taking their job seriously. In popular shopping areas, nary a plastic bag was to be seen. It took me a week to get accustomed to the ban as shopping bags have become so seamlessly ingrained in our daily lives. This was not always the case.
Growing up in Karachi in the early 1990s, I often accompanied my grandmother on her trips to buy groceries. She used to carry a large shopping basket made of woven straw. It was strong, sustainably sourced and completely biodegradable. She always used to bring along a grocery list and shop in bulk, buying huge tins of oil, large packs of sugar, rice, flour and tea. Upon reaching home, she would transfer the groceries into smaller containers.
By planning ahead, not only did she cut down on packaging, but also reduced the number of trips she made to the store, saving on fuel and reducing her pollution footprint.
Since the ban has been enforced, I am following many of the same practices and being more deliberate about my shopping experience. I have placed cloth bags for groceries, a net bag for fruits and vegetables, a shopping basket in the trunk of my car along with a couple of containers for liquids such as yogurt and milk. Already, I am observing a dramatic drop in my daily use of plastic bags.
Some citizens may, however, consider the sudden ban on plastic bags both absurd and trivial. Why prohibit something that is convenient and offers high utility?
In order to effect behavioural change among the average consumer, the government must invest in an effective media campaign to raise awareness about the environmental and health hazards of plastic bags as part of the 'Clean and Green Pakistan' initiative.
Direct communication about the availability of environment-friendly alternatives such as cane baskets and reusable eco-friendly bags, and rewards for compliance with the plastic ban, will go a long way towards large-scale community acceptance and adoption of the scheme. An accompanying educational campaign across schools and colleges explaining the reasons why plastics are bad for the environment could also pave the way towards educating children and youth about caring for the environment and inculcating a culture of cleanliness.
While it is encouraging that the government has focused on passing laws to ban plastic litter, people also need to be educated about viable environmentally friendly alternatives to ensure they are not doing more harm than good. For example, styrofoam containers are just as bad for the environment as plastic, while paper bags are derived from trees and are less likely to be reused. Reusable bags made from jute, cotton or heavy-duty materials have longer utility, while shopping baskets made of cane or wicker are completely biodegradable and are, therefore, the most environmentally friendly option.
Globally, there is a growing movement to reduce plastic pollution. Many countries have already prohibited plastic bags or imposed heavy fines to discourage the use of plastics. Cutting down on shopping bags for daily purchases is a good first step towards reducing our plastic footprint. Once the plastic ban gains momentum in Islamabad, it could be gradually extended to other provinces and expanded to include other single-use plastics such as water bottles, cutlery and straws.
Source: Dawn