– Sandhya Regmi
(Founder President, BH Foundation)
(Published in My Republica on April 14, 2015)
With the dawn of 2072, Kathmandu valley is set to join the plastic-bag-free club, which includes many countries or their states across the world. With the aim of making Kathmandu valley clean and pollution-free, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (MoSTE) has imposed the ban from Baisakh 1, 2072—on import, storage, distribution, sell, and use of plastic bags up to 40 microns thickness.
As an informed citizen and environmental specialist, I rejoice over this positive move, and much like the rest of the Kathmanduities, offer it a red-carpet welcome. We may consider this as a first step in our dream of having a clean-green Kathmandu free of not only plastic bags but also of other hazardous wastes, sewages, carbon emission and other forms of air pollutions.
During my last Shimla visit in August 2014, I had an opportunity to witness the plastic-free hilly station, and was fascinated by its greenery and beautification of its surroundings with pine trees. Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, was in fact among the first cities in India to ban plastic bags in August 2003. More to it, illegally cutting down a single tree in this hilly station may lead one to a heavy penalty, including years of imprisonment. I could not see a single littering anywhere on the street, much less the polythene bags and improper disposal of solid waste. I had then wished deep in my heart the same to come true in my dear Kathmandu soon.
Tension with Competing Forces
The process leading to the ban imposition has not been smooth and not been achieved in a single day, due to the tension between competing forces. The dismissal by the Supreme Court on the ground of public health concern—one week before the scheduled ban date—of the writ petition filed for a stay-order against the ban, cleared the last hurdle in the way for the ban imposition. The petition was filed by Nepal Plastic Manufacturers’ Association—that represents 300-strong plastic-manufacturing industries that collectively produce some 30,000 tonnes of plastic bags annually—arguing that the ban was made in a haste and without necessary preparations, including the choice for alternatives to plastics.
Apparently, the ban notice represents an act of compromise. It retracts from the earlier decision of the Parliamentary Committee on Environment Protection as well as of the Cabinet to ban all forms of plastic bags. And the notice is silent on the production ban of the bags in the valley. Further, if the ban aims to achieve a clean and pollution-free place as stated by MoSTE, and relates to the public health concern, as held by the Supreme Court, why was the scope of ban limited to the valley?
Yet, success or otherwise of the ban hinges on its enforcement. In the past, similar attempts have failed. In 2011 MoSTE had come up with ‘Plastic Bags Control and Regulation Directives’, barring companies and individuals from production, import and storage of polythene bags thinner than 20 microns, and had even provisioned fines ranging from Rs. 500 to Rs 50,000 for producing and using of such bags. But the regulation could hardly be enforced, due to the fierce protest from the Association that had argued on the ground of investment loss and job loss.
Obviously, the plastic-bag hazards affect human health, and other lives, and degrade environment from multi-fonts. The bags litter the landscape, and take hundreds of years to decompose even if dumped properly. After years of dumping, they may breakdown, but never biodegrade. So, earlier or later, their toxins get released into the environment, thereby adversely affecting the health of organisms that come into contact with the toxin. If not disposed of properly, the bags can clog sewages, prevent ground-water seepage, pollute water bodies, and affect water habitats. When plastic bags are blown by wind into trees and other plants, animals and birds can be mistaken for flowers and plants, and can die after eating the bags. Making the matter worse, the ingested plastic toxin remains intact even after the death and decomposition of the animals and birds, and thus can be ingested by another cycle of victims. If the bags are burnt, they infuse the air with toxic fumes, which once inhaled can damage human health and lead to cancer. Nor is plastic bag’s production-process environmental friendly. Every year some 100 million barrels of oil are burnt to produce plastic bags around the world, thereby adding air pollution and taking away much of the vital energy resources needed to meet other energy requirements.
Effect of Ban
The ban is bound to have some effect on the plastic manufacturers, but they would be far from being out. The ban only affects production of the thin plastic bags, and the affected volume is limited to that being consumed within the valley. Concurrently, this will generate a new business opportunity to other support industries that produce biodegradable and recyclable bags, such as papers, jutes and cloths. For consumers, this may mean more frequent recycling of their bags or paying more from their pocket for more expensive alternative bags. Further, unless its hygienic condition is maintained, recycled bag itself may become a source of contamination.
Towards realizing the goal of making the capital and the country clean and pollution free, besides the plastic ban, the state must go through another long to-do list. But for now, the real test is whether or to which extent the enacted ban can effectively be implemented. Obviously, making it a success or otherwise hinges not only on the efforts of the state authorities, but also of Kathmanduities.