Plastic shopping bags hang on display at a shop in Peshawar. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province lacks facilities for their recycling, which poses an environmental hazard for the community. (photo: Abdur Razzaq)
The frequent manufacturing and use of polythene shopping bags is choking sanitation systems in urban areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and contributing to environmental degradation.
Sensing the seriousness of the issue, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister, (CM) Pervez Khattak, has ordered a ban on the production and use of these non-biodegradable items across the province.
The order will be implemented within two months. During this time period, all the available stock of plastic shopping bags in markets and factories will be removed.
Though many people burn these shopping bags to dispose of them, large of plastic bags wind up in the city's sewer system, said Chief Engineer Muhammad Naeem Khan of Water and Sanitation Services Peshawar (WSSP).
He added that during heavy rains, drain pipes clogged by polythene bags cause flooding in the streets. In parts of Peshawar, roads and streets have been dug up to clean underground drains from polythene bags.
“The ban on polythene bags can reduce the overflow of water by up to 70 percent in urban areas of the province,” Naeem Khan said.
He added that the city's drains had been designed for a smaller population. The number of Peshawar inhabitants has mushroomed to over 3.5 million, an increase of over 60 percent, since 1998.
Urban planners have been unable to cope with the strain on sanitation facilities. The total solid waste generated in the city of Peshawar is estimated to be 602 tonnes per day, with a generation rate of 0.5kg per capita. A majority ends up in makeshift dumps in the streets of the provincial capital.
“The ban on plastic bags will compel the industrialists to manufacture biodegradable bags which are environmental friendly and can decompose in least time period,” Naeem Khan said.
According to a survey conducted by Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2010, the annual average consumption of plastic bags is estimated at 397 bags per person. The report concludes that if this trend continues, the consumption of plastic bag will reach to 112 billion in 2015.
The report shows that more than 8,000 plastic bag production units are operating in different parts of the country. Lahore has 6,000, Karachi 1,200, Peshawar 300 and Faisalabad 230.
Precedents regulating the production of polythene bags exist in Ireland, Bangladesh and the U.S. state of California, said Dr. Saeeda Yousaf, assistant professor at department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Peshawar.
The manufacturing of polythene bags also has a disproportional environmental imprint, Yousaf added. It requires about 4.5 times more energy, generated mostly by oil and natural gas, than bags made from other materials. “We are consuming our non-renewable energy resources for a cheap material. Shopping bags are nor so important for our future while petroleum and natural gas are the back bone of our economy,” she explained.
When someone burns polythene bags to discard them, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other toxic gases mix into air which is also very dangerous for living organisms, Dr. Saeeda warned. “Polythene bags are also dangerous for wildlife, marine life and the agriculture sector,” she added.
When these plastic bags flow into rivers and oceans, they trap and kill jellyfish and other aquatic animals, Dr. Saeeda continued. Sometimes, food the bags contain food scraps that attract wild animals which eat the food along with shopping bags, which is hazardous for their lives.
“Plastic takes more than a thousand years to break down, and when it mixed with soil, it contaminates it. Plastic bags are considered among most severe threats to environment as these bags neither decompose nor can be neutralized by burning,” she said.
Dr. Saeeda asked local community to use cloth bags instead of plastic bags and recommended the government ban the production and use of plastic bags on a nationwide level.
Impact on public health
Dr. Spora Shahid, an oncologist, told Afghanistan Today that each minute one billion polythene bags are produced across the globe. But developing countries lack the recycling plants to process them.
In Pakistan, the prevalence of polythene bag use increases the number cancer patients. The bags are made of polyethylene monomers which are highly carcinogenic, Shahid explained.
“Different colours and other substandard additive chemicals are used in various products made of polyethylene monomers. When food stuffs are kept in these polythene bags and bowls in high temperature, the carcinogenic chemicals mix with food items. Use of such items can cause any type of cancer,”she added
. Bad for business
Despite its environmental benefits, the planned ban on plastic bag use has its opponents. Didar Gul Safi, the provincial president of the country's Shopping Bags Manufacturing and Whole Sale Dealers Association, said that the decision taken by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government is bad for business, adding that plastic bags are the basic need not only in Pakistan, but across the globe.
“These polythene bags are prepared from pure materials,” Safi said. “We are paying huge amount to the government in the form of sales tax and custom duties for the import of raw materials of plastic bags because [the industry employs] more than a million people. If the provincial government banned manufacturing of polythene bags, many families will be deprived of their livelihood.”
He said that the provincial government is failing to address the larger issue of overloaded sanitation and drainage system in big cities, adding that polythene bags are not the only cause of clogged drainpipes.
If the provincial government bans the production of shopping bags, it has to create alternate business opportunities for factory owners, Safi said. In developed countries, recycling plants are established to recycle used plastic bags, he added.
“If WSSP set up recycling plants for polythene bags, the department would be able to generate revenue we would carry on in our business. The ban on polythene bags will be totally based on injustice,” Safi continued, adding the government should instead support the production of biodegradable bags.
Looking for an alternative
The environmental protection agency in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (EPA) has taken steps to introduce biodegradable bags in the past, said Liaqat Ali Khan, who has served as the EPA's deputy director for the last 15 years.
Khan said that his department has tested the bags of two factories that produce D2W, a biodegradable plastic, with good results. But provincial governments do not have the authority to pass legislation requiring factories to produce D2W bags, he added. Such legislation must be passed by the Federal Government of Pakistan, which only approves the manufacturing of polythene bags.
“Industrialists say that if they received demand from the market for biodegradable polythene bags, they would produce them,” Khan said. “Pakistani industries are capable to produce Oxo-biodegradable plastic bags but people only demand the cheapest polythene shopping bags. That is why huge quantity of these hazardous bags are produced on daily basis.”
The EPA plans to address the issue on a national level using the Environmental Protection Act, passed in 1997. The institution is also attempting to revise federal policies and will soon propose legislation enabling the use of bags made of biodegradable plastic.