Will Islamabad’s single-use plastic ban help control the city’s sprawling landfill sites?
On August 14, a blanket ban on plastic bags was imposed in the federal capital. Islamabad’s two million residents each use between three and four plastic bags a day, according to officials. Once disposed—often carelessly—they slither into sewage systems and snag on trees, turning into an eyesore and a public health nuisance.
Since the ban was announced, the residents of Islamabad seem to be navigating their way around the new law. People can be seen holding grocery products in their bare hands, or in reusable bags.
The move to ban plastic bags in Islamabad is the brainchild of Malik Amin Aslam, federal minister and adviser to the Prime Minister for climate change, who, on a trip to Kenya, was struck by the noticeable lack of plastic pollution.
“We have adopted the Kenyan model—the guillotine approach!” said Hammad Shamimi, spokesperson for the Ministry of Climate Change. It took eight months to adapt the Kenyan law to the local context, he said, adding that all stakeholders were consulted. “We know we have angered some people but now there is no space for corruption!”
Muhammad Kashif Chaudhry, president of Markazi Tanzeem Tajir Pakistan, an association of merchants, begs to differ. He claims that the ban, coined without consultation, favours a handful of companies. It ignores the rights of the one million people that he says are associated with the industry. Iftikhar Ahmad Jamal agrees. He is the owner of Ready Pack Industries, a plastic-based products manufacturer. “There are about 40 polythene bag manufacturers in the twin cities. We can make changes to our ingredients but should not be asked to shut down completely. We are the fifth-largest tax-paying industry in the country.”
A substantial portion of Islamabad’s waste—about 550 to 600 metric tons per day—comprises of plastic bags and is dumped at a landfill site located about 20 minutes from the center of town.
And although the city’s landfill site is located in I-12, the stench of garbage is powerful enough to reach a couple of sectors away. When Soch visited the site last month, we saw a group of men sitting on a charpai in the middle of the stinking landfill, while a group of children played nearby. In the midst of all this, some men and children were sifting through the trash for miscellaneous items—bags and other knick-knacks—and were placing them on a sling behind them.
These people were scavengers, and CDA officials Soch interviewed, claimed that their efforts, as garbage collectors and recyclers, are crucial for sustaining the environment and help with the city’s waste management.
Now, the government of the Federal Capital is relying heavily on scavengers for the ban to become a success, because Islamabad’s existing solid waste management system is in shambles.
The Directorate of Sanitation in its brief, available with Soch, claims that out of the total waste collected per day, only three percent is plastic, about 64 percent is household waste, and 27 percent is green waste. These statistics were obtained from a study published by the Capital Development Authority. They have not been updated since.
Eight-year-old Aftab is one of the youngest scavengers at the site, and he helps his 18 year-old brother, Omar, collect items from the garbage. He has been doing this for about three years now. “I only collect rubber, iron, plastic and glass,” he said.
The items Aftab and Omar collect are sold to scrap owners, who then sell them to recycling companies. The younger scavengers make about Rs. 5000 per month, while the elder ones make anything between Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 20,000. “Some days we hit the jackpot and find money or gold in the rubbish,” said Omar.
They only collect heavy or thick plastic and have no use of thin polythene bags as they do not sell well in the recycling market. “We have been trying to gather funds so that our waste can be segregated, but in vain. Instead, we rely on scavengers to do our job,” said a CDA official, who chose to remain anonymous. “Yet, Islamabad is the cleanest city in Pakistan, even with the limited budget we have.”
Standing in the middle of the landfill site, Omar told Soch that no government representatives had visited them recently. “Sometimes they visit for some pictures and then leave,” he said. “Everything here is owned by us.”
In a Statutory Notification released by the government on 22 July 2019, the use, manufacture, trade and import of polythene bags is banned in Islamabad, but the manufacture and import of flat polythene bags is allowed for certain uses, provided that an application is filed and reasons stated. Also, every manufacturer will have to provide the government with a recycling plan for these flat bags.
The notification also states fines for manufacturers, traders, users, and locals ranging from a mere Rs. 5000 to Rs. 10,000 per violation for individuals, to Rs. 500,000 for manufacturers and traders.
This idea was conceived after Federal Minister and Adviser to Prime Minister for Climate Change, Malik Amin Aslam—the brain behind the plastic ban—took a trip to Kenya, where he observed a lack of plastic pollution.
He added that this was not a drawing-room decision, but a well-thought-out plan that the Ministry of Climate Change mulled over for eight months. “We altered the law in Kenya according to our region’s needs and consulted with all stakeholders,” he added.
Muhammad Kashif Chaudary, President of Markazi Tanzeem Tajir Pakistan, on the other hand, claimed that the idea was coined without consultation, to favour a handful of companies and ignored the rights of one million people associated with the industry.
“There are about 40 polythene bag manufacturers in the twin cities, all of whom will have to shut down,” said Iftikhar Ahmed, owner of Ready Pack Industries, a plastic-based products manufacturer. “We can make changes to our ingredients but should not be asked to shut down completely.”
According to a report published by the Environment Protection Department, there are more than 8000 plastic manufacturing units present in Pakistan. On average, they produce 250 to 500 kilograms of bags daily.
In 2013, non-biodegradable plastic bags were banned in Islamabad, and manufacturers were ordered to add a prodegradant to polythene (PE) bags. “We made sure all manufacturers in Islamabad were using the additive which makes polythene bags dissolve into the environment between 20 days to six months,” Chaudary added.
Polyethylene is the most common type of polymer used to manufacture polythene bags. After the 2013 law banning non-biodegradable bags in Islamabad, the additive D2W (dissolve to water) was added to these bags. Subsequently, consumers and traders alike began to believe that the bags were now ‘oxo-degradable’.
But contrary to popular belief, oxo-degradable plastics are neither a bioplastic nor a biodegradable plastic, but rather a conventional plastic mixed with an additive (D2W in Pakistan’s case) to imitate biodegradation,” Ahmed added.
Furthermore, Ahmed told Soch that oxo-degradable plastics quickly fragment into smaller pieces called microplastics, but don’t break down at the molecular or polymer level. In other words, they do more harm than good.
In 2018, the European Commission reported the impact of oxo-degradable plastic bags on the environment, and added that there was no evidence that these plastic fragments will undergo full biodegradation within a reasonable timeframe.
People could be ingesting approximately five grams of plastic every week, which is the equivalent weight of a credit card, according to a WWF study. The study further suggests people are consuming about 2000 tiny pieces of plastic every week: that’s approximately 21 grams a month, just over 250 grams a year.
As soon as Islamabad’s ban on single-use plastics was announced, residents of the city were agitated because of the lack of readily available alternatives in the market.
Varied opinions could be seen on popular social media websites, and the implementation process confused many. “If the government wants people to step out of their comfort zones and take away an extremely widely used and versatile product, they should try to make the transition smoother and not add further to all the confusion,” said Fizza Abid, on a post in a private Facebook group.
The most affected party in the ban, however, are labourers at the now shut down manufacturing factories. “Each factory can hire 40 to 50 workers and [because of the ban] they are taking away jobs,” said Chaudhary, of the merchants association.
In April 2019, Ready Pack Industries began firing people. Of the 45 employees they originally had now, about 10 workers remain. “It took me four to five years to learn this work, and now that they are saying that the factory will be shut down,” said Qazi Ahmed, a machine operator from Kohat. “I have wasted good years of my life learning a useless skill. If I change my job they won’t even pay me Rs. 10,000.” He currently earns Rs. 20,000 per month and the company he works for pays for his food and rent. He has to take care of 12 people back home.
On the day of the ban, every shopkeeper in the Federal Capital was obligated to stop the use of polythene bags, effective immediately, even if they had them in stock.
“Pakistan imported about 900,000 tons of plastic last year, of which 30 percent was used for manufacturing plastic bags,” said Ahmed. “My factory alone produces 500 tons of plastic bags per annum and 50 tons per month. Since the ban was announced about six to eight-tons of bags have been returned to my factory.”
Manufacturers are urging the government for solutions. “It takes a minimum of Rs. 20 million to set up a cottage industry. The industries are worth billions of rupees and cannot die in a day,” stressed Ahmad. He added that existing machines can only be sold as scrap and cannot be readjusted to the government’s demand.
Shamimi, from the Ministry of Climate Change, claims that these statistics are bogus, “These people have not been able to provide us with a list of all registered companies. They are all illegal, in my point of view,” he said.
Despite repeated tries, Soch was unable to obtain a list from the Federal Board of Revenue or the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Authority to tally the number of plastic manufacturers and recyclers in Pakistan.
What is the government demanding?
So far, the government has only banned one polymer, polyethylene, because it is hard to recycle. “We do not have any polyethylene recycling facilities in Pakistan and available technology has not advanced enough to be able to identify and separate oxo-degradable plastics, they affect the quality of recycled products,” explained Dr. Zaigham Abbas, Deputy Director of Chemicals at the Ministry of Climate Change.
Polyethylene is a thermoset plastic; hence it cannot be recycled easily. Whereas polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (popularly known as PET), and Polyvinyl chloride (popularly known as PVC) are thermoplastics, which can be easily recycled in an eco-friendly manner.
“We are not asking industries to shut down, but to adapt to the situation,” says Shamimi. “There are 300 polypropylene manufacturing plants in Pakistan and 30 polypropylene recycling plants; the manufacturers make sure they are recycled, hence this is a better solution”.
Manufactures argue that they can produce the same quality polypropylene bags in polyethylene if allowed but Shamimi has shunned the idea. “We will be throwing into the environment five times more plastic if manufacturers are allowed to manufacture high quality, reusable polyethylene bags,” he explained. A basic polythene bag is made up of 30 microns and high-quality bags, usually found at high-end brands is made of 100 microns or more, depending on the size.
When Zartaj Gul announced Islamabad’s single-use plastics ban, she introduced reusable bags, which the government, initially, gave away for free. Within a week, the government was seen distributing bags by a brand-name, GAIA. Their bags are now available at all major stores in Islamabad.
GAIA bags will be retailing between Rs.14 to Rs. 200. Polyethene bags were free.
Manufacturers claim the blanket ban on plastic bags was a move meant to promote government-sponsored brands such as GAIA. “Even the advertised bag is not made entirely of PP but has PE layers too. Won’t this affect the recycling process?” questioned Chaudary, President of Markazi Tanzeem Tajir Pakistan.
Soch spoke to an official at GAIA, who clarified that polyethylene is used as an adhesive in the bag’s manufacture, and won’t affect the recycling process.
GAIA is a sub-brand of a larger conglomerate, Premier Group, which has been in the manufacturing industry in Pakistan for the past two decades. “We gave the government 100,000 bags to distribute for free as publicity. We have been making these bags for our clients for the past five years or so. This was a good opportunity to bring the bag to the masses,” said the representative of the group, who wishes to remain anonymous.
Shamimi claims that the government was gifted these bags by various companies, to kick start the process of moving to reusable bags from single-use plastics. “People will not have to buy these bags every time they shop. The idea is to buy them just once, reuse them until they are unusable and then when they throw it, scavengers will sell it off to the recyclers,” he said.
Similarly, locals in favour of the ban argue that their parents used reusable cloth bags, plastic baskets and carts to shop. They also believe this is a business opportunity for small industries who can capitalize on an emerging market.
The Ministry of Climate Change has already started fining shop owners in Islamabad, and will soon begin fining consumers. Shamimi believes that the Kenyan model is corruption free, but the government of Kenya tried to ban even polypropylene bags in March 2019, as manufacturers were manipulating ingredients.
Following Islamabad’s decision to ban single-use plastics, the provinces of Sindh and Punjab have followed with their own iterations of the ban, leaving close to 1 million jobless. And as plastic bag manufacturers in large cities across the country begin taking to the streets to protest for their jobs, landfills across Pakistan remain a pressing problem—one that deserves urgent attention.