Very slow, unsteady progress on capital’s plastic bag ban

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Apr 1, 2013.

Islamabad – Since February, the Pakistan-Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) has been busy negotiating with the federal capital’s business community and plastic bag manufacturers to shift to an eco-friendly alternative for plastic bags.

The agency’s efforts began when the law and justice ministry notified the Prohibition of Non degradable Plastic Bags (Manufacture, Sale, Use) Regulation 2013 earlier this year.

Under the regulation, which will take effect in Islamabad from April 1, regular plastic bags will be replaced by “oxo biodegradable” plastic bags that decompose quickly.

The traditional polythene plastic bags take centuries to decompose naturally, release carcinogenic fumes if they are burned, choke water drains and also pose a danger to wild animals who can die if they accidentally ingest these bags.

According to Pak-EPA, the average consumption of plastic bags in Pakistan is 350 bags per head per annum.

For a little over a million Islooites, that number comes up to at least around 350 million bags each year, of which a significant percentage end up clogging drains and littering streets outside, and away from, Islamabad’s only landfill site.

Pak-EPA’s initial efforts have resulted in some success. The Utility Stores Corporation (USC) has agreed to adopt the biodegradable bags and even experimented with a prototype. Next, USC will move to the tendering and production phase, Asif Shuja, director general of Pak-EPA, said.

Pak-EPA is targeting large scale users in the first phase. Brands such as Dawn Bread and KFC are already using eco-friendly plastic bags and some other corporate companies have responded positively to the regulation.

Companies that are making an honest effort to change from polythene bags to oxo biodegradable bags will be given some more time, Shuja said.

But a lot of work still remains.

Even if the corporate sector accepts the regulation, it will be the small businesses and small-scale manufacturers who might continue producing and selling non-degradable plastic bags.

Especially since it would be practically impossible for Pak-EPA inspectors to visit and re-visit every single shop in the city.

Shuja admits this category of manufactures and shopkeepers will be a problem, but Pak-EPA is going for a two-pronged approach to tackle this challenge: Create awareness among the users and target the manufacturers.

So far, Pak-EPA has focused on the manufacturers. Shuja said Islamabad has only four plastic bag manufacturing plants, which have assured they will shift to biodegradable bag production.

The oxo biodegradable bag manufacturing process is the same as that for regular plastic bags, except an additive called olefin is mixed with the polyethylene raw material.

The olefin’s presence allows oxygen in the atmosphere and microbes to weaken the bag’s molecular structure and decompose it naturally within months.

The per bag cost for eco-friendly bags is only Rs0.5 higher than non degradable bags, despite an existing six per cent import duty on the olefin.

The Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association, a UK-based organisation which has members in over 30 countries, has donated field-testing equipment to Pak-EPA.

Pak-EPA officers will use the equipment to check whether bags being sold as biodegradable in Islamabad’s markets are actually what they claim to be.

The UK association has also designated an expert to assist Pak-EPA with training and technical concerns, Shuja said.

Plastic bag manufacturers must also get registered with Pak-EPA so it can ensure the olefin they are using meets required quality standards.

Shopkeepers and manufacturers in Islamabad will be issued challans and could face charges at an environmental tribunal if they defy the ban consistently and purposefully.

For the users, the oxo biodegradable bags come with a logo (a water drop with the text “d2w”, which represents a brand for biodegradable plastic) that consumers can check before accepting the bag.

Shuja said if consumers start insisting for biodegradable bags, shopkeepers will have no option but to stock up on these bags.

Reaching that stage of awareness, especially at the grassroots level, might take a while. But at least the first steps for an eco-friendly future have begun.

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