Karachi's Plastic Bag Ban: What is our Responsibility?

March 22, 2007
Zainub Razvi

Karachi may well be one of the most environmentally dangerous cities in the world to live in, but not many in the local Karachi government, let alone the common man here, would be fully aware of what a great controversy the global warming phenomena has caused at the world stage in more developed countries. The Wikipedia page on Global Warming Controversy has all the details but the short summary, I suppose is, that there is widespread difference of opinion on the possible causes and effects of the recent rise in our planet's temperature, with some people believing human factors have a definite involvement, while others, the so-called environmental skeptics, including some scientists themselves, argue that the former concerns are exaggerated.

Regardless of which side of that debate you are on, I'm sure you will, like every Karachiite like to see a greener, cleaner and healthier Karachi. Unfortunately though, such is the nature and impact of environment related issues, that any moves to improve things, or even suggestions to improve things, invariably acquire the state of a political debate. Take for instance, the recent ban imposed by the Sindh provincial government on plastic bags below 30 micron weight.

Though the use of these bags themselves has no direct impact on climate change it self, their misuse, including improper disposal, leads to all sorts of environmental hazards, non-so-more severe then the hopeless situation we all witness with respect to Karachi's ill-functioning sewerage system. The banning, while good intentioned, does nevertheless create issues similar to those raised by the opponents of the Kyoto Protocol, who argue that they do not oppose the treaty's idea in general, but appose it because the strain it would put global economies.

Adnan Siddqui, who blogs at Adnan's Crazy World and is a regular commentator on the Karachi Metroblog is one of those vehement critics of the plastic bag ban. Speaking on the matter during a group discussion on email he told us he too wasn't against the ban it self, but against what he called the "sudden imposing of a law without providing any alternatives". Plastic bag manufacturers and traders have warned the ban on all plastic bags below the 30 micron weight limit would adversely affect the polythene bag industry, which is the livelihood of 1,000 small industrialists and more than 2,000 dealers and traders in Karachi alone, adding thousands more to the already long list of jobless people in the city. This predicament, in Adnan's view is something the government has done "nothing" about.

"I got the chance to talk to one of local suppliers and he was very worried because he's facing difficulty to find alternative job," Adnan said, adding that local shops in his area, since they had no alternatives, had resorted to giving away items to customers in their bare hands, or in other cases, such as those of butchers, by wrapping them in paper, or in the case of milk vendors, by asking their customers to bring their utensils from home. Higher quality plastic bags, those above the 30 micron weight limit, Adnan insists, are simply not available at all the shops in the city.

Supporters of the ban, including fellow metroblogger Ramla (who wrote about this issue her self here), dispute that the economic impact of the ban could be overstated by its critics, "There is very little switching costs to environmentally friendly practices these days", she says, reminding us that "at any cost, not all plastic has been banned - only that below 30 microns weight." The relevant law, "The Sindh Prohibition of Manufacturing, Sale and Use of Polythene Bags-2006", is reportedly, not 'framed and notified' yet, but various government officials, including the City Nazim Syed Mustafa Kamal, and Sindh Minister for Environment and Alternative Energy Dr. Sagheer Ahmad, have already been warning on numerous occasions, that offenders will be punished.

While some officials higher up have themselves have admitted they've decided not to "deal with the offenders with an iron hand" in the initial stages, once fully imposed, the law could deliver punishments ranging from a mere confiscation of the banned polyethylene bag, to heavy fines of up to Rs. 50,000 and even imprisonment for a minimum of three months to a maximum of four years in jail. And if you thought that sounded strict, let me also tell you that the ban applies to not just the manufactures and sellers but also the users of the plastic bags themselves. Yes, that means us.

Whilst switching to a plastic bag free environment could require some adjustment, it is not something that should be beyond us, as another supporter of the ban, Dr. Awab Alvi says, "The world over has learnt to live without plastic bags, I am sure we will learn the same way, yes, it seems hard but we shall learn". It would be a bit utopian to expect the ban to solve all of Karachi's environmental problems overnight, especially given how skeptically most bans are normally received by both the authorities who have a responsibly to enforce them, as well as ordinary citizens whose job is to abide by them, but it is still important to recognize that the ban is a step in the right direction, irrespective of what the governments' incentive, motivation or intention may be in introducing it.

While it is a valid concern that people in the industry need to be provided alternative jobs, simply passing on the buck back to the government, on every issue, is not going to do Karachi at large any good. It may be the government job's to ensure that alternative jobs markets, such as the paper bag and recycling industry, are opened for those facing a vacuum in the polythene industry, but it our job to make sure we respect the ban at our level. The hopeless situation the sewerage system is in now is precisely because no one cares, because every third person is willing to throw their plastic bag down an open gutter with the justification that 'everyone else does the same'.

We need to reignite our moral consciousness and ask ourselves what our responsibility is; I'm sure there is a voice inside everyone that knows everyone else doing something wrong doesn't make it right, we just have to listen to it. So the next time you are on your way to the shopping markets to buy something use a paper or cloth bag instead of a polythene bag. If you're using a plastic bag, make sure it above 30 microns in weight, and if you know of shopkeepers who insist on giving you the banned variety, report them to your local Union Council Nazim. Listen to your inner self, because change starts from a single person, and that person could be you. One small step at a time, and Karachi could be a better place to live in for everyone.

Zainub is an opinionated dreamer, intermittent blogger, massive sports fan and aspiring journalist recently liberated from studying boring dentistry. She blogs at Kaleidoscope, freelances for Spider and Sci-Tech World both part of the Dawn media group, and also writes at ezines Desicritics and Chowk. She is currently majoring in General History and minoring in International Relations and Mass Media Communications/Journalism at the University of Karachi.
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March 23, 2007
07:46 AM


the scrouge of plastic bags is a real one
as you probably known it is practically indestructible

forget karachi...from pondicherry, kanyakumari, lothal, somnath, aurangabad. mirpur khas, tando allah yar.... too many places to list ...the countryside is littered...infested with plastic bags and wrappers for supari and gutkas

there is a solutiuon of sorts

they have deveoped a bio-degradable plastic bag...perhaps the government/s could look into legislating that?

March 23, 2007
12:01 PM

It is really sad to see how plastic has invaded our lifestyle. Ten years ago, if you drove out to the villages, you would've have been hardpressed to find platic bottles or bags - you'd have found food wrapped in plantain leaves, glass bottles for juices. But now even roads off the beaten path are flanked by fields littered with plastic bags.

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