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Plastic packaging and environment risks

Plastic packaging is a subject of scrutiny these days and there has been a series of discussions on its viability for the environment and ecosystem stability. Our country Pakistan is not an exception to this problem of plastic shopper bags. We use 55 billion shopper bags annually. These polyethene shopper bags are very light in weight and discarded after one use due to their poor quality. These discarded polyethene shopper bags can’t stand the winds and keep on flying until they reach some water reservoir or face rain and are dumped into the sewerage line choking sewerage system or litter the rivers or ocean endangering the life of water animals.

Federal and provincial governments of Pakistan are showing their seriousness to resolve this issue and have banned the use of polyethene shopper bags. As such, the Government of Pakistan has become 128th country to join hands with the global community to ban single use polyethene bags. This is a welcome step and should be appreciated being environment friendly.

Packaging is an important element and ensures the safe delivery of the products from factory to the customers. It helps the producer to brand its product and label it with the necessary information helpful for the customers to identify its product in the competition. As packaging is must for the intact delivery, consumption and use of the product, no business can afford to avoid packaging. However, despite having a myriad of benefits, the packaging material, if not opted carefully, can be harmful for the environment and even its reuse can be health hazard for the common people. It is a responsibility of the producers, packing their product, to ensure that they are using the right packaging material, which is not a threat to the ecosystem and is not hazardous in any way.

As most of these environment hazards are associated with use of the plastic shopper bags choking the sewerage and littering the oceans, the solution that is being practiced and encouraged throughout the world is prohibition on the use of single use plastic bags. UN report suggests more than 120 countries had introduced bans and/or levies on single-use plastic items.

The use of plastics for making various products including packaging material have transformed everyday life. The usage of plastic is increasing and annual global production is around 400 million tons. The use of plastic have bestowed various benefits for the society and the business including ease, durability and economy. However, its growing use and mishandling of the plastic waste has raised some series questions. This mishandling of the plastic waste is resulting in accumulation of plastic waste in landfills and in natural habitat. This hazard also includes physical problems for wild life resulting from ingestion of entanglement in plastic. As per UN report five trillion plastic bags are consumed each year which equals nearly 10 million plastic bags per minute. This is quite a big number and can jeopardize the whole ecosystem, if resulting plastic waste problem is not addressed immediately in a rational way.

Our government has acted in an intelligent way to ban only the problematic single use polyethene bags. The one important point that the public and all the stakeholders should understand that all types of the plastic are not environment hazard. Only low weight polyethene bags, low weight straws cups are the major problem. As such we need to distinguish between the two before stepping towards any proscription. Subtracting the plastic form the daily use would be like wasting a precious natural resource depriving the humankind of the potential advantages of plastic; just look around and find out the plastic products in our use and think of a life without them.

 

There can be various pragmatic and practical solutions to the plastic waste problem. Such solutions can include material reduction, design for end-of-life recyclability, encouraging increase in recycling capacity, development of bio based feedstock, strategies to reduce littering, the application of green chemistry recycle analyses and the list goes on.

One most advocated solution was the use of oxo-degradable plastic packaging. However, scientific evidence indicates that oxo-degradable plastic simply fragment into small pieces. These small plastic fragments pose an environment risk, particularly in the ocean. This scientific evidence suggests that oxo-degradable plastics goes against two core principles of circular economy: one is designing out waste and pollution and the second keeping products and materials in high-value use (source: New Plastic economy initiative).

Government authorities should take the necessary steps by inducing intellectual exercise of the professionals and open debate of all the stakeholders. Though prohibiting the use of polyethene shopper bags can help overcome this problem of sewerage choking but such restrictions should be accompanied by alternatives and incentives. Banning single use plastic bags can be a viable option as being practiced internationally. Moreover, giving incentives to the recycling industry would not only help resolve the issue of plastic waste but would also make the plastic packaging even cheaper. The working of the waste management companies in Punjab can be a good business model for the plastic waste companies to collect end-of-life plastic waste from the doorstep of the persons disposing plastic waste. These recovery strategies would remove some burden from the associated lifecycle cost and reduce environmental impact by eliminating the need to use virgin materials and reproduce components on future product.

Among various solutions to plastic waste problem ranging from recycling, using additives to a complete ban, the world authorities should be very vigilant and sober while adopting one or more of such solutions. Alternatives like cotton tote bag or steel water bottle may generate higher carbon emissions over its lifetime. Similarly adopting bio-derived plastics may, as with biofuels, increase land cleared for crops. Plastics that degrade faster can result in the scourge of micro-plastic in the environment if not coupled with better waste management (source: The NewScientist e-magazine).

In fact there is strong incentive for using plastic products including plastic packaging. It costs significantly low, it provides better hygiene and most importantly plastic packaging reduce food wastes. The industry, government and consumers should work together to find a practical solution to the plastic waste problem to come up with a win-win solution for the people and the environment. Fixing the plastic waste crisis would require to take some seriously joined-up thinking.Taking a wrong decision would pose risk of making the problem even worse.

(The writer is a business professional based in Islamabad and can be reached at nadeem _naj@hotmail.com)

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