ISLAMABAD: Each time someone in Pakistan runs out to the store for a carton of milk, 200g of loose sugar or an after-school snack, it comes in a flimsy plastic bag that usually gets thrown away.
If all those bags are added up, officials estimate, they total 55 billion a year. Easily torn and too weak to use again, they end up clogging city drains and sewers, piled up in vacant lots and parks, ingested by grazing goats and dogs foraging for food, and polluting canals and streams.
Now the government is about to take a drastic first step toward eliminating this public eyesore and environmental hazard. Beginning Wednesday, all single-use polythene bags will be banned in the capital region of about 1.5 million people. Anyone who uses, sells or manufactures them will face a fine.
“This is something we have to do. You cannot burn, bury, reuse or recycle these bags,” said Malik Ameen Aslam, a senior official at the Ministry of Climate Change, which is spearheading the effort. “The health of 200 million people is at stake.”
The ban is the latest project in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s green initiative, which began last year with a campaign to plant 10 billion trees to fight deforestation. It also follows similar actions in other developing countries, such as Kenya and Tanzania, where discarded plastic has become a noxious scourge. Today, more than 40 countries have either banned or taxed single-use plastic bags.
Aslam said he had consulted with officials in Kenya, which two years ago enacted the world’s toughest ban, with penalties of up to four years in prison and $40,000 (Dh146,900) for using or selling a bag.
“The Kenyans told us a sudden ban is easier to enforce than trying to collect a tax or fee, because there is no incentive to bribe,” he said.
The fines in Pakistan will also be steep — $31 for using a single bag, $63 for selling one and up to $31,000 for manufacturing them. The national per capita income is $1,200 per year. Shoppers are not likely to be aggressively pursued, but companies that make and supply the bags have been warned that they will be inspected to enforce the ban.
Local manufacturers have protested, saying the move will put half a million employees out of work. Aslam said ministry officials are meeting with the owners to discuss remedies such as converting their machines to produce other goods.
55bflimsy plastic bags used and thrown away per year
To encourage customers to obey the law, officials have introduced colourful cloth tote bags, which they have distributed at weekend markets and will place in hundreds of stores starting Wednesday. They have promoted the bags on social media, accompanied by catchy slogans and images of trash heaps on fire and birds caught in plastic bags.
“We cannot bring change through force,” one federal capital commissioner posted on social media. “Our slight change in habits will do miracles for future generations.”
Not everyone is convinced. Nazeer Abbasi, 38, a fruit seller, said that the anti-plastic campaign is a misplaced priority and that officials should be focusing on more pressing issues such as unemployment and poverty.
“The capital has an army of sanitation workers who can collect these bags, but we see them everywhere in parks and streams,” he said. “They should first find new jobs for the plastic factory workers and then ban the bags.”
Other shoppers and merchants in the capital region said they were aware of the environmental problems and approved of the ban on bags, but some wondered what could replace them in millions of small transactions, especially in poor areas with few supermarkets.
“This is a good step and I support it. People don’t realise how dangerous these bags are for our health,” said Ali Mohammad, 27, who runs a small grocery store. He said that the plastic suppliers he deals with are “very angry” but that if the government provides enough paper or cloth substitutes, “we won’t have to pay for plastic bags to cater to our customers.”
Many older Pakistanis remember when there were no such bags at all, and women sewed fabric totes at home to carry their household purchases.
“When I was a child, my mother used to take homemade bags to the market. But those were slower times, when women made clothes for their kids, too,” said Arif Khaliq, 43, a real estate dealer who was out shopping last week. “Now life is so busy. Plastic bags are easily available, and people don’t think about whether they are good or bad. They have become a part of life.”
Just 30 years ago, when single-use plastic bags first became popular in Pakistan, Aslam said, people consumed about 10 million of them per year. Since then the population has grown by more than 50 million, along with convenience stores and snacks sold in small bags.
Much discarded plastic ends up in low-income communities, where residents recycle and resell used items. Many yards there are filled with sorted piles of scrap metal, plastic ware and broken glass, with scales to weigh them for resale.
“I’m already losing money because no one wants to buy plastic now,” said Qasim Khan, 26, a scrap dealer who usually buys bulk plastic for pennies a pound and sells it for a little more. “But I’m happy this new law will get rid of all the filth in the gutters. That will be good for everyone.”