Potentially hundreds of cases can be made for a blanket ban on plastic bags. The plastic bag hazards start right from the production stage: plastic bag manufacturing consumes a large amount of non-renewable energy. Given that there are around 200 plastic industries in Kathmandu (and more than 500 around the country), their cumulative effect on air quality could be dangerous, although there have been no studies to measure the level of air pollution from plastic industry. Then there are the more visible threats.
Since plastic bags are not biodegradable, they have a deleterious impact on flora and fauna. One of the documented examples of such an impact in Kathmandu is the rapid decline in fish population in Bagmati river. Time and again, we get to hear of cattle asphyxiated to death from the plastic bags they inadvertently consume. Plastic bags also clog drainage pipes and if burnt, emit highly toxic gases.
Various government efforts to ban plastic bags have come to a naught. Earlier this year, the Kathmandu Metropolitan City enforced a complete ban on plastic bags less than 20 microns thick. There have been similar efforts from the non-government sector. For instance, various departmental stores have in the past tried to wean shoppers from plastic. But such initiatives have soon floundered: the addiction of city dwellers to plastic bags has proven to be stronger than their environmental sensibilities.
People visiting the department stores soon started to express their displeasure at being charged for polythene bags. Some believe the idea of a blanket ban on plastic bags is misplaced, given their huge popularity. Predictably, this cohort includes a strong plastic bag lobby which contends that the real problem is not plastic bags per se, but their misuse and improper disposal.
There is a desperate need to make people aware about the enormous harms caused by plastic bags. Another area for improvement is better monitoring of the plastic industry. Many plastic industries are running without registration, making an oversight over them impossible. A way has to be devised to bring them in the tax net. The other initiative has to be promotion of better alternatives like jute bags. Notable efforts like banning of plastic bags inside the premises of Singha Durbar, KMC and the Central Zoo, if sustained, are sure to get the attention of broader public as well. The fact that banning plastic can pay rich dividends is illustrated by the four-year-long ban on plastic bags in China.
More and more Chinese people seem to be convinced of the great harms caused by plastic bags, which largely owes to an effective government awareness campaign. In the process, the state has saved 4.8 million tons of oil and prevented 800,000 tons of plastic bags from going into the market. China’s example suggests that if the right pitch can be made for ‘greener options’ people can be persuaded to part even with their beloved plastic bags. Thus the most important factor for an effective ban seems to be political willpower at the top. Unfortunately, this important issue seems to have escaped the attention of our political honchos so far