NationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 14

Suffocating plastic pollution

The economy is the ultimate power in today’s world but among other most important things of concern include rampant climate change and environmental degradation.

Studies in the Arctic revealed that each litre of sea ice contains more than 12,000 particles of microplastic, which scientists believe are being ingested by native animals and marine life. Despite burying in landfills and incineration, about half of the plastic waste generated finds its way to the ocean, eventually posing a serious threat to marine life.

Since 1967, global plastic production has increased from two million tonnes to 380 million tonnes, almost three times faster than the world’s GDP. Since 1950, the world has produced 9 billion tonnes of plastic waste. Only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated, while the rest — 79% — has accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment. There are several countries that have duly banned the use of plastic bags such as Bangladesh, France and Rwanda. Pakistan lags behind in these initiatives.

Another study revealed earlier that in 2017-18 around 80,000 tonnes of plastic was found floating in the largest plastic pool in the Pacific, and it represents the most persistent form of pollution Earth ever encountered and reached the remotest parts of the globe. According to the United Nations Environment Program, every year the world uses 500 billion plastic bags. Yearly, at least eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans, the equivalent of a full garbage truck every minute. This calls for serious attention!

In the last decade, we produced more plastic than in the whole last century. Over 50 percent of the plastic we use is single-use or disposable. We buy one million plastic bottles every minute. Plastic makes up 10% of all of the waste we generate. Only 14% of total plastic used the world over is brought back for recycling, the rest is disposed of into oceans and soil. According to another report on the menace of ever-growing plastic pollution and its dumping in oceans, in the next 30 years plastic waste in oceans will outweigh fish and other marine creatures at the current rate of dumping. The economic value of these materials, mostly single-use, is estimated to be $80-120 billion. They cause annual damage of $13 billion to marine ecosystems by affecting tourism, fishing, and shipping.

Pakistan is not among the top plastic waste-producing countries such as China, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. However, owing to rapid urbanization, a booming population and an increase in consumerism, we are dumping an alarming amount of plastic waste into our land and rivers leading to the Arabian Sea. Pakistan is facing an escalating plastic bag pollution crisis. A recent survey by the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency found that about 55 billion bags are currently being used, and is expected to increase yearly by 15 per cent. These single-use non-biodegradable bags mostly find their way to open garbage dumps, landfill sites or municipal sewers, thus making sewage disposal systems less efficient by choking and adding to the costs of utility operations. Metropolitans like Karachi teemed with garbage and waste. The waste has stained what used to be our once beautiful seashore of Karachi. The Clean Karachi Campaign by Federal Minister Ali Zaidi also failed due to its mismanagement.

A colossal amount of these bags is often being directly burnt, adding most hazardous exhaust gases like dioxins and furans to the ambient air. Encourage the use of reusable and washable long life metallic and clay and glass utensils at the household level as much as possible. Enforce already existing regulations to curb the use of plastic bags and open burning. A recent example worth-following is Islamabad and  KP’s ban on single-use shopping bags and it must spread all across the country as with the advent of Imran Khan’s government, initiatives like Clean Green Pakistan and planting 10 billion trees have increased expectations at different environmental fronts. The consumer industry must be made to practice a take-back policy or modern recycling machines can be used which are usually seen in developed countries, especially for PET bottles and containers. Local urban councils must ensure that plastic waste is not directly disposed of to a landfill site. Municipalities must impose fines on throwing plastic bags into their sewers. The informal sector must be made to use recyclables, most importantly plastics, through enhanced financial incentives.

Some of the best practices from around the world — be it developed countries such as the UK or developing ones such as Bangladesh and Rwanda — have been due to stringent policies by the government. For instance, in the UK last year, heavy taxes were imposed on plastic packaging with less than 30 percent recyclable polymers. In Rwanda, carrying a plastic bag can land you in jail with a heavy fine. People coming into Rwanda have to leave all plastic bags at the immigration.

According to UN Environment Agency, the world needs to slow the flow of plastic at its source, but we also need to improve the way we manage our plastic waste. Because right now, a lot of it ends up in the environment. Ten rivers alone carry more than 90% of the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans including top three, the Niger, Nile and our very own Indus.

Plastic waste — whether in a river, an ocean, or on land — can persist in the environment for centuries. The same properties that make plastics so useful — their durability and resistance to degradation — also make them nearly impossible for nature to completely break down.

So, in the light of preceding points, it can be concluded that there are a number of things that governments can do — from running public awareness campaigns, to sensitizing communities on the issue, to offering incentives for recycling, to introducing heavy levies or even banning certain products outright.