Issues and Challenges

Single-Use Plastics ­— A Manmade Menace

Plastic pollution is a serious problem, which is snowballing at an alarming rate. Pakistan is a signatory to several international conventions pertinent to environmental protection and to discourage the use of plastics and efforts are being made to counter the production, use and sale of plastic.
Plastic pollution has harmful effects not only on the land, rivers, oceans, wildlife and habitat, but also human life. It disturbs the food chain as plastic cannot be digested by any organism. Plastic bags also affect the growth of crops, by hindering the process of photosynthesis. The most direct effect of plastic pollution is the imprisonment of animals in nets or large debris. It causes significant mortality of marine mammals, turtles and birds. Animals are often found choking on plastic bags and bottles. Because of the chemical additives used during plastic production, plastics have potentially harmful effects on human health. Indeed, exposure to toxic chemicals coming out of plastic can cause cancer, birth defects, impaired immunity and other health problems.
There are no definite estimations about the plastic waste that ends up in the ocean, building up on marine pollution. Helen Briggs states, “Researchers found that oceanic currents are depositing huge amounts of plastic pollution on the beaches of atolls. They calculated that the islands are littered, with 238 tons of plastic, including 977,000 plastic shoes and 373,000 toothbrushes. These were among the identifiable elements in an estimated 414 million pieces of debris.”
Micro plastics have been found everywhere in the ocean, from sediments on the deepest seafloor to ice floating in the Arctic. As the ice melts over the next decade, it could release more than a trillion bits of plastic into the water, according to one estimate. Over the last century, we have learned how to make synthetic polymers. Roughly, 40% of the 448 million tons of plastic produced every year is disposable. Much of it used as packaging intended to be discarded within minutes after purchase.
Last year, the Coca-Cola Company, perhaps the world’s largest producer of plastic bottles, acknowledged for the first time that it produces 128 billion plastic bottles a year. Nestlé, PepsiCo, and others also churn out torrents of bottles. The growth of plastic production has far outstripped the ability of waste management. 



Nevertheless, the world is waking up to the plastic pollution crisis, and governments are starting to make efforts to address this problem. A partial list of the good news since 2014 would include, in no particular order: Kenya joined a growing list of nations that banned plastic bags, imposing steep fines and jail time on violators. France said, it would ban plastic plates and cups by 2020. Bans on plastic micro-beads in cosmetics in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and four other countries has also taken place. The industry is phasing them out.
The Pakistani government, after the Billion Tree Tsunami took other green initiatives as well. It has introduced green projects at various levels of the government, in order to achieve goals within the stipulated time. Recently, the government of Punjab, in coalition with several other departments, civil society and various stakeholders has successfully introduced the Peri Urban Afforestation Policy (UPF) headed by the Urban Unit of Punjab. Furthermore, to materialize this vision into action, the office of the Commissioner Lahore, in collaboration with the civil society has already started taking steps for the plantation of trees throughout Lahore as a pilot project. The CM Punjab, in a meeting, announced the ban on plastic bags in the province, which has successfully been imposed. A series of meetings have taken place in order to curb the production, sale and use of single-use plastics which continues to pollute the Indus River, making it the second most polluted river in the world. The Sindh government has also imposed a ban on use of plastic bags in the province.
The existing local and international laws that are binding on Pakistan, prohibit the use of plastic bags in order to reduce plastic pollution. The Punjab Ordinance on the Manufacture, Sale, Use and Import of Plastic Bags 2002, imposes a fine of 50,000 and/or imprisonment for the use of polythene bag. However, this law is very concise and has no provision for the wastage of the existing plastic bags in the market. There needs to be amendments in the existing law in order to achieve these goals. The Lahore High court recently took up this case for banning the use of plastics, which includes plastic bags, straws, cutlery, etc. The court has given government a timeframe in which the government is expected to formulate a legislation/policy on the ban of plastic bags completely. There have been several bans around the country on plastic bags. The scenic Hunza Valley has become Pakistan’s first plastic free district. It has been considered an offence to make, use, purchase, export or import plastic bags, according to the district administration’s statement. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government is beginning a crackdown against plastic bags. The purchase, sale and manufacturing of plastic bags now carries a hefty fine in Peshawar that can range anywhere from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 5 million and can be coupled with a three-year imprisonment. Furthermore, Islamabad has also imposed a ban on plastic bags. 
The Government of Pakistan, including the provincial governments, in a commendable effort, is trying really hard to place a ban on plastic use effectively. However, in order to sustain these bans on single-use plastics, it is imperative that the government replaces these bags with alternatives, which are cost effective, easy to make and most importantly biodegradable. The government can also introduce bags, which would help revive the cottage industry and help flourish the indigenous industries, which can include cotton bags and bags made of date palm leaves. Most importantly, the government should invest in awareness campaigns, disseminating the information regarding the harmful effects of plastics. Furthermore, strict enforcement of laws and policies should be practiced in order to eliminate the menace of plastic bags that continues to create hurdles for the environment, animals and humans in their everyday lives. HH


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