The words of Norway’s Minister for Climate and the Environment, Espen Barth Eide, perfectly encapsulate the dire state of our environment due to the rampant use of plastic. “Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic,” he declared. If this statement doesn’t serve as a wake-up call, then what will?
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the impacts of plastic production and pollution on the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution are catastrophic. Plastic exposure has been linked to harmful effects on human health, including potential damage to fertility, hormonal disruption, metabolic issues, and neurological disorders. Furthermore, the open burning of plastics significantly contributes to air pollution.
In our locality, it’s distressingly common to witness drains clogged with plastic and polythene shopping bags. Natural streams and waterways have been transformed into garbage dumping sites, suffocating aquatic life. Today, these drains and streams are repugnant, polluted water bodies emitting foul odors.
Single-use plastic bags have wreaked havoc on the environment as they take years to decompose. When plastic bags degrade, they release toxins into the soil, and when burned, they emit hazardous fumes into the air.
In 2019, the government took the right step by enforcing a ban on plastic bags and imposing penalties for non-compliance. Many establishments faced consequences for continuing to use plastic bags. A ban enforcement team, consisting of officials from the climate change ministry, Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA), and Islamabad Capital Territory administration, monitored compliance. Violators were subjected to fines of up to Rs50,000.
While the ban was a necessary measure to protect the environment, over time, both the public and authorities became complacent. Consequently, plastic bags resurfaced, and it now seems as if there was never a ban in place.
The severity of this issue prompted the National Assembly Committee on Climate Change to take action. They directed the relevant ministry to seal all factories producing plastic bags and provide a list of shops and factories that had violated environmental laws. The committee expressed concern over the flagrant use of polythene bags in Islamabad despite the ban. Pak-EPA Director General Farzana Altaf Shah was instructed to take action against shop owners still using plastic bags.
Several countries, including Bangladesh, have successfully implemented bans on polythene bags, with Bangladesh having had such a ban since 2002. Pakistan, unfortunately, remains one of the largest producers of garbage, lacking proper disposal procedures.
It is disheartening that we often underestimate the seriousness of this issue. For instance, individuals responsible for disposing of hazardous hospital waste in incinerators are instead selling it in the open market. Therefore, a robust media campaign should be launched to educate people about the hazards of plastic bags. Awareness efforts should begin at all levels, starting with educational institutions.
Together, let us recognize the urgency of this matter and take concrete steps towards a cleaner and healthier environment.