5,000 years ago, the Indus Valley civilization emerged and brought two centuries of prosperity to the subcontinent region. The ancient populace were sophisticated urban developers and ingenious farmers. And they relied heavily on the mighty Indus River to provide them with the source of irrigation, food, and drinking water. Even today this river is a blessing for Pakistan and surrounding areas as it continues to sustain the agriculture sector and provides home to rich biodiversity. The river has also become extremely vital for carrying out one additional function: it serves as a mega trash bin for plastic waste.
The mighty Indus River that once sustained an entire civilization is now choking on consumerism and, according to Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, it coughs up nearly 165,000 tons of plastic every year into the Arabian sea. It is gross and repulsive but at least we do not have to worry about the last plastic bottle we threw in the bin; that bottle will continue to haunt and destroy the marine ecosystem for the next 500 years, where it will continue to decompose into smaller fragments. It is kind of ironic to know that most plastic items are considered to be disposable even though they are indestructible. They just never seem to go away and sometimes they come back in form of micro plastics. These tiny chunks of plastics have been identified to be present in the food we eat, the water we drink, and even in the air we breathe.
As the world has opened its eyes to the horrors of plastic pollution we always tend to point fingers at consumers as the primary source of the problem. But this is hardly a fair slur. Do consumers have a choice? It is hard not to come into contact with plastic during our everyday lives and a lot of plastic is ‘meant’ to be thrown away. This includes food wrappers, water bottles, straws, and bags. And it is going to get worse. With the rise of 3D printing technology, we are going to see a boom in the products made by using plastic. According to one estimate, plastic will probably outweigh all marine life by the year 2050.
Controlling pollution requires intervention at a national level. One extremely popular approach for controlling the massive pile-up of plastic waste is simply banning the sale and distribution of certain items like shopping bags and drinking straws. Many parts of the United States have already banned straws from being served in restaurants. The United Kingdom, European Union, and Taiwan will soon be implementing similar laws. Can Pakistan benefit from such legislation? This remains a big question mark. Use of plastic utensils and packaging helps prevent cross contamination and they are vital for stopping the spread of disease. Restaurants can opt for reusable drinking straws made from glass or metal but this practice will not be favoured by most customers. The food industry can also consider using wax paper straw which decomposes faster in landfills.
On April of 2013, Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency introduced a new regulation restricting the use of non-degradable plastic products in Islamabad. While this was hailed as a watershed moment in fighting against plastic pollution, it failed to deliver the desired outcome. When public institutions are unable to deliver key targets to safeguard the interests of the wider population, non-profit organizations need to jump in. There are only a handful of nonprofits in Pakistan dealing exclusively with waste management and none of them are focused on eradicating the graveyards of plastic. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Pakistan has regularly carried out awareness campaigns to educate the masses about waste management and recycling. Many other nonprofits have played their part in creating awareness about the steps we can take to bring about a change in the environment. But most of these campaigns are based on the underlying assumption that consumers alone can mitigate plastic pollution.
Everyone has a role to play but we often tend to ignore the role of manufacturers in contributing to the widespread pollution. Manufacturers of plastic are seldom held accountable for ill effects of their operations. Of course, we cannot just urge them to stop making products and go out of business. There are many ways manufacturers can become part of the solution and it all starts with legislation. The United States, Germany, and other European countries have adopted extended producer responsibility (EPR), which is an environmental protection strategy that makes producers accountable for the entire life-cycle of the products. Under EPR, plastic manufacturers in Pakistan would have to develop mechanisms for collecting, reusing, and recycling plastic waste from end users. These manufacturers will also be liable to pay additional taxes to compensate for the cost of disposing and managing waste.
Manufacturers can also focus on developing oxo-biodegradable plastic for all single use items. Such plastic ‘dissolves’ when it comes into contact with oxygen in the air or water. This technology has already been used in a number of developed countries with highly favourable results. And the best part is that it does not require major investment. In 2004 the Environment Protection Agency of Pakistan estimated that 55 billion plastic bags are consumed annually in the country; that is nearly 275 times more than the current population of Pakistan. We can save rivers by using biodegradable bags.
Producers of plastic can also share the burden of spreading awareness about the perils of plastic pollution by organizing workshops and undertaking marketing campaigns. All products should also come with warning labels urging people to reuse and recycle. Manufacturers are probably the most important piece of the equation in eradicating pollution. They have the technical know-how. All they need is adherence to business ethics.
The article was originally published in the Daily Times on November 17, 2018. For original content click here.