According to the Pakistan Plastic Manufacturers Association, the nation uses some 55 billion of plastic bags each year. From the once primitive rivers of the Hindu Kush to the slums of Islamabad, Pakistan is being smothered due to lack of public awareness, government inertia and poor waste management.
Beaches covered with plastic waste and dying marine life entangled in bags shocked other countries: nearly 120 have implemented a form of ban on single-use plastic.
Pakistan is among them, but struggles with law enforcement. There is no coherent national policy and regional efforts often do not take into account the importance of educational outreach, and many in rural areas claim not to be aware of the damage that single-use plastic can effect.
“Fighting for the environment? We have no knowledge about that,” says salesman Mohammad Tahir, who uses plastic bags to wrap vegetables for his customers.
In Chitral district, 42-year-old banned the use of such bags two years ago but to little effect.
“I like plastic bags,” shrugs resident Khairul Azam, while shopping at a local market.
“Once home, I throw them away… I know it is not good, but we don´t have waste bins in my neighbourhood,” he adds.
According to a study by the German Environmental Research Center Helmholtz, Instead such waste litters the roadsides and hillsides. It also clogs the streams that feed into the Indus River, which is now the second most plastic polluted river in the world, behind only the Yangtze River in China.
According to the United Nations, single-use plastic bags kill up to one million birds, hundreds of thousands of marine mammals and turtles, along with “countless” fish each year.
Authorities say the amount of plastic used in Pakistan is increasing by 15 percent each year.
“Plastic doesn´t degrade. It only becomes smaller and smaller,” says Hassaan Sipra, an environmental researcher.
“Animals eat it. You eat them. Then it generates liver dysfunctions, diabetes, diarrhoea. But because it is cheap and convenient, people don´t see the health consequences,” he adds.
Plastic bags have become part of the “culture” in Pakistan, says Nazifa Butt, a researcher with WWF.
“We would never use a cup of tea without a saucer. You will never be sold anything without a plastic bag. It is considered insulting,” she adds.
In Pakistan, recycling options are limited and waste disposal is often poorly managed, even in the capital. Garbage is often simply burned in the street.
A new report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that an average person ingests up to five grams of plastic a week — roughly equal to the weight of a credit card.
In Chitral, the authorities first tried to ban plastic bags in 2017, with an additional measure approved earlier this year. Authorities have also backed new environmental awareness campaigns in schools, according to a local official.
But many shops still do not use biodegradable bags and enforcement against single-use plastics remains minimal.
“The local government is not sincere,” said Shabir Ahmad, chairman of the Chitral traders union.
He explains: “They never check the market. They don´t fine the shopkeepers.”
“I can confiscate all the plastic bags in one hour. But then, what is the alternative?” says Khurshid Alam Mehsud, a district administrative officer in Chitral, who insists more “time” is needed to address the issue.
Provincial governments in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa along with municipal authorities in Lahore have issued similar bans. But little has changed on the ground due to lack of law enforcement.
However, the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has long been committed to making environmental protection a priority, hopes to reverse the tsunami in plastic, said Climate Change Minister Malik Amin Aslam.
As of August 14, plastic bags will be banned in the capital Islamabad, with violators subject to heavy fines.
Plastic bags will be banned in the capital Islamabad, with offenders facing heavy fines, from 14 August.
“This love affair with plastic has to end in Pakistan,” says Aslam, who hopes that the ban in Islamabad will serve as a “model” for the rest of the country.
It’s a huge loss for Plastics manufacturers, who say up to 400,000 people work directly or indirectly in the industry have also raised concerns. But Khan´s government says action is necessary regardless.
Aslam says: “It´s a health risk, it´s an economic risk, it is an environmental risk. It is something that we need to get rid of.”
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