Environment watchdog struggling to enforce plastic bag ban in capital

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Jun 9, 2013.

Islamabad – Almost two and a half months after a ban on non degradable plastic bags was officially made effective in the federal capital, the spirit to adopt environment friendly alternatives to the plastic bags remains buoyant but there is little to show in terms of concrete steps taken for the ban’s enforcement.

The Pakistan-Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA), the country’s environment watchdog at the federal level, is trying to drum up support from the business community, the provinces and, most importantly, the consumers to change the culture of plastic bag use.

Financial constraints, however, limit EPA’s efforts to raise awareness about the harmful effects of plastic bags to occasional seminars and a largely ineffective “Say NO to plastic bags” campaign.

Consequently, shopkeepers and customers in markets around Islamabad expressed a general lack of awareness about the Prohibition of Non degradable Plastic Bags (Manufacture, Sale, Use) Regulation 2013, which was notified in January and became effective on April 1.

But when asked if they would prefer using a plastic bag that does less harm to the environment, most said they would.

Shop salesmen interviewed by The Express Tribune seemed reluctant about the alternative to the regular plastic bags — mostly unsure and curious about the additional costs of the eco-friendly bags — but none of them rejected the idea outright.

“We would like to have an option in plastic bags that does not harm our environment,” said Muhammad Bashir, a convenience store manager in Aabpara. “It is in everyone’s best interests.”

It might be a stretch to expect consumers to start asking shopkeepers for “oxo biodegradable” plastic bags — the alternative bag that Pak-EPA is trying to introduce to the market — but Pak-EPA director general Asif Shuja believes the educated residents of Islamabad would have a greater inclination to make the switch.

Shuja said Pak-EPA’s field inspectors, including a representative of the Capital Development Authority (CDA) enforcement wing, will start making rounds of the markets in July to check if shopkeepers are in compliance with the regulation. Using equipment provided by the UK-based Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Association, the inspectors would also check if the oxo biodegradable bags being sold follow international standards.

He said the enforcement will be phased; Pak-EPA will issue warnings in the beginning and follow-up with penalization.

The severity of the plastic bag menace can be judged from the numbers. If Pak-EPA’s estimate of average plastic bags consumption in Pakistan is projected on to Islamabad, the figure returned is around 350 million bags for the federal capital each year.

In the absence of an efficient waste disposal system, these plastic bags litter the streets of Islamabad, clog the drains, line the streams and even become a road safety risk whenever there is a windstorm in the city.

Nevertheless, there is hope that the supply side might adopt the change, especially if Pak-EPA maintains a tight handle on enforcing the regulation.

According to meeting minutes available with The Express Tribune, some plastic bag manufacturers from Islamabad met Shuja on May 2, 2013, and said they were ready to produce the oxo biodegradable plastic bags because the manufacturing process is almost similar.

The oxo biodegradable bags use 1-3 per cent of an additive, called olefin, which allows oxygen, and later microbes, to disintegrate the plastic much faster than regular plastic bags.

They manufacturers were, however, concerned that the five to nine per cent additional cost of production might cause their clients to opt for other companies that are producing regular bags. They also demanded Pak-EPA speed up the authorization process by which a company would be allowed to provide quality-ensured olefin to local manufacturers. Shuja said an independent committee within Pak-EPA is currently going over applications for this purpose.

Shuja said renewed efforts will be launched to get the new government to waive off a six percent duty on the olefin, to make it more affordable.

The bulk of plastic bag manufacturing takes place in the provinces and Shuja said the Pak-EPA was supporting the provinces to adopt the plastic bag ban. He said they are even willing to send the draft text of the regulation to the provincial administrations so they do not have to mull over the technical guidelines.

Meanwhile, like a drop in the ocean, a few local and foreign outlets have already adopted the oxo biodegradable bags, a private company is selling biodegradable “trash bags” at some Islamabad super stores and the Utility Stores Corporation is expected to start using the new bags soon.

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