Let’s say GoodBye to polythene bags

Throughout the world, around one trillion polythene bags are consumed every year, equating to 2 million per minute. Different countries have different usage levels, but the entire world has now realised the menace and begun to reduce this usage.

Polythene is a fantastic material that has greatly improved the world. At the same time, it has killed millions of animals and plants and destroyed the serenity and eco-balance of the planet as a whole.

In Sri Lanka, it is estimated that 15 kilos of polythene are discarded by each person per month and over five hundred thousand tons of polythene materials are imported to Sri Lanka annually to meet this demand.

Hazards

The single fact that polythene bags are non-biodegradable makes them unfit for usage on account of their impossible disposal problem. Environmentalists estimate that polythene bags could take anywhere up to 1,000 years to disintegrate.

The used and discarded polythene bags thrown and dumped carelessly everywhere causes enormous pollution problems in the environment. These include:

(a) They degrade soil, which becomes contaminated with the toxic chemicals present in them; (b) they choke sewer pipes and clog drains resulting into water-logging and disruption of the entire drainage system in an area or cities; (c) they are often times eaten up by livestock that die after consuming them; (c) To destroy polythene bags, we can either recycle or burn them. If we burn, they emit harmful chemical gases like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, methane, sulphur dioxide etc.

These gases pollute our environment; (d) the wastes of polythene bags, sheets, etc. are drawn to a sea or an ocean by rivers and they are deposited in them. They pollute and disturb the eco-system of the sea or the ocean.

Ban

Taking into consideration all these hazards and in a bid to make Sri Lanka polythene-free and find a sustainable solution to solid waste management, President Maithripala Sirisena recently announced a number of measures including the ban on the import, manufacture and sale of lunch sheets and a ban on the use of polythene for decorations.

The short-term measures also included the ban on the plates, cups, spoons made of polystyrene and the ban on meals packed in polythene containers. The measures also recommend the promotion of paper, cloth or reed bags or biologically degradable plastics for customers when purchasing items in stores, prohibition of burning polythene and plastic in open places and introduction and promotion of biologically degradable polythene and plastics.

These decisions appear to have won the support of majority of Sri Lankans, if media comments are anything to go by. The ban, if properly implemented, will go a long way in ensuring environmental integrity, and as a Government Minister pointed out, would reduce at least on third of the waste collected in major cities.

Success stories

In order to tackle this monstrous issue, many countries have either implemented bans on usage of polythene bags or levied fees for their use. The oldest is in Denmark, which started in 1993, and with the implementation of a levy on polythene bags. The result was drop of usage by 60% within three years. Ireland also followed suit and in 2002 introduced polythene bag tax. Within three years polythene bag usage dropped by 90 per cent.

Ireland and Denmark are just two successful examples and many other countries across the world have followed them. The European Union will require an 80% reduction of plastic bags by 2019. This means virtually every European country is now considering ways to bring about heavy reductions in polythene bag usage. Not only EU countries, more than 30 outside countries have implemented outright ban of the usage of polythene bags and have witnessed positive results.

Rwanda

But the most classic example comes from Rwanda. Located in Eastern Africa, this country is largely known for its tragic genocide that exploded in April 1994. Since then it has tended to operate as a relatively unknown country outside certain political and economic circles. However, for such a small, developing nation it is home to a variety of unique, forward thinking policies.

In early 2000s, Rwanda became concerned about the menace of polythene bags. The initiative was a response to the two most common ailments caused by polythene: a well-documented understanding of polythene’s negative environmental impacts, but equally influential, the extensive physical presence of bags around the country. In addition to the visual pollution, research from the National University of Rwanda reported the widespread environmental consequences of polythene. This information signalled the turning point. It not only sensitized many Rwandans to the problem of polythene within the country, but it got politicians thinking about the issue as well. A nation-wide campaign began by flooding the media. Furthermore, local NGOs and businesses were commissioned to create alternatives -mainly cotton or banana leaf bags. The advocacy was a success and in 2008 a bill was finally passed to ban polythene bags within Rwanda.

Alternatives

The benefits of Rwanda’s polythene bag ban were quickly evident: in 2008 UN Habitat named Kigali the cleanest city in all of Africa. Now nine years since the bill was passed, Rwanda remains a plastic bag-free country, and has developed a reputation across the region for its extreme cleanliness. The passing of the bill coupled with Rwanda’s monthly day of cleaning has insured that it remains this way, and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Just saying no to polythene bags is not enough. We need to go for alternatives such as eco-friendly bags. Jute bags and cloth bags. Recycled paper can also be used to make carry bags as substitution of polythene bags.

Most of the eco-friendly bags are made of natural fibres which are biodegradable. These bags are not only attractive but also durable and long lasting. Made of attractive and light weight fabrics, these bags are comfortable and economical. In addition, the demand will create thousands of opportunities for local employment.

Golden rule

At the same time, there are research going on to produce polythene from sugarcane and starch. Scientists believe it is a matter of time that completely biodegradable and eco-friendly bags will be in the market bio-ethanol derived from sugarcane and starch.

Till such times that we are able to substitute the non-degradable polythene by a degradable counterpart, the golden rule that must be followed is to shift to biodegradable products. When each one of us pass on this message to one’s neighbours, friends and relatives, the cascading effect would be seen in the society which is required for the safety of our cattle, wildlife, crops, our own selves and our environment as a whole. Reverse transformation from our throw-away, easy going mentality is required for solving the polythene menace.

Electronic news media, corporate sector and university students are three collective entities that could make a discernible difference. Popular TV talk show anchors could promote the use of cotton bags and jute and cane baskets in their shows conducted in and out of the studios. Big businesses could distribute cotton bags and cane baskets through their mobile floats and company vehicles; they could brand them for free brand promotion and corporate goodwill.

The university students could have their very own student life business projects of running stalls in different weekly and holiday bazaars to sell cotton bags and cane baskets with fashionable designs and styles and build their business reflexes. Little but consistent efforts across the country could in the end make a big difference.

Our duty

As citizens, we must commend the government for bringing policies to curb excessive usage of polythene bags. The directives have not yet banned the polythene bags, but directed retailers to use biodegradable bags.

This writer wishes to suggest that the government declare everyday “No polythene bag policy” nationwide which makes it compulsory for consumers to buy a biodegradable bag when making purchases. But if a consumer insists on a polythene bag, a government levy should be charged, as some of the countries are presently doing. The government can allow the public to buy plastic bags including the levy, but must set a timeframe to discontinue this practice.

The government also should work closely with all stakeholders on environmental protection educational programmes, emphasising on anti-litter campaigns while encouraging consumers to opt for re-usable bags.

On the other hand, we as responsible citizens, must discharge our individual roles and responsibilities by embracing environmental friendly practices in our daily lives. If we change our present attitudes we will be able to witness tangible results. Protecting the environment is not solely the responsibility of the government and positive results can never be achieved if we do not work collaboratively.

Change must begin with us! 


Add new comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.

Or log in with...