Yes, plastic is malleable to our needs. Plastic is multi-purpose. And, most importantly, plastic is cheap. But plastic is also a health hazard. It is non-biodegradable and because it is so cheap, we rarely ever bother to reuse it or to curb our consumption. The dire consequences of plastic on the natural world around us is unparalleled and as of yet Nepal has no other way of getting rid of the several hundred thousands of polythene demand it faces daily with the exception of burying it.
Plastic has, indeed, given us a false sense of security. We wrap our food in it, we carry our water in it, we give plastic toys to our children and virtually every appliance, furniture and article of clothing we own sport some form of plastic. And because we are surrounded with it, we often forget to question its safety.
During the manufacturing of plastic, many chemicals are used that have caused plastic to be associated with being a huge health hazard. These chemicals have been known to mess with hormone productions in our body, cause cancer and induce birth defects and developmental problems in children. Plastic also contains heavy metals that are extremely toxic.
We are likely to come in contact with such toxins either through direct contact with the plastic or indirectly through air – when we decide to burn them, through water – when we discard plastic into river systems or drink water from plastic containers and through food – when we eat fish from polluted water bodies or when we eat food wrapped in plastic.
One look around Kathmandu will also clarify the devastating effects that plastic has, not only on us, but also on the environment around us. Polythene bags litter sidewalks, clog pipelines and choke river flow. Over the years, it has been documented that plastic bags are alone responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of birds, seals, whales and turtles every year and these numbers are multiplying rapidly with time. Within Nepal, it has been responsible for the death of hundreds of cattle every year who have a tendency to swallow discarded bags along with the kitchen refuse we throw away.
To be fair, different plastic products have different compositions and different half-lives and one may not be as bad as the next. But, for the most part, plastics are considered to be non-biodegradable because they can take anywhere between four hundred to a thousand years to completely decay into the soil. This essentially means that the first piece of plastic to be ever made – that was invented in the early 1900s – will still not have decomposed completely today and may take anywhere between three hundred to nine hundred years more to do so.
One idea to get rid of plastics – which many Nepalis increasingly employ today – is to burn them. Burning plastic releases chemicals like dioxins and furans into the atmosphere. Scientists have predicted that the effects these chemicals – primarily dioxins – have on the public health today almost equals the effects that the DDT pesticide had on public health in the 1960s. Report from the Environment Protection Agency in America confirms that dioxins cause cancer and an array of severe reproductive and developmental problems and can linger in the body – and the atmosphere – for decades.
It has been over a year since the use, production, distribution and import of plastic bags below 40 microns (lightweight plastic bags that cannot be recycled) was banned in Kathmandu. But the use of such bags is rampant among the general public and the demand does not seem to be decreasing any time soon. While dealers claim that this is the old stock that is still in circulation, many worry that these bags are imported from nearby cities where the ban is not implemented and that there is no end in sight.
Despite enjoying moderate success for the first few days, the polythene bag ban quickly lost momentum after the earthquake of April 25 last year. With the government citing that it had more important matters to deal with, the ban was completely forgotten and life was just as choked by polythene bags as ever. The situation remains the same today, because even an entire year after the earthquake, there is no sign that the Kathmandu Metropolitan City will be intervening anytime soon.
“Without strong monitoring and fining, there is little that can be done”, says Shikha Karmacharya, an employee at Himalayan Climate Initiative (an NGO well known for its “No thanks! I carry my own bag.” campaign), “Some people are too set in their old ways and no amount of cajoling can change their mind.”
However, while it makes a lot of sense, prosecuting and fining offenders can be a very challenging task under the current law because it is hard for a police officer to differentiate a 40 micron bag (which is banned) from a 50 micron bag (which is not). This lack of a blanket ban is another reason that has allowed the trade in polythene bags to go unhampered.
While it may not be possible for us to completely ban all forms of plastic products in Nepal, there are plenty of alternatives for polythene bags. Recycled paper bags can be used to carry small items such as grains and bread while cloth and jute bags can be used to carry fruits and vegetables. When asked about a viable alternative to carry meat products, Karmacharya proposes carrying a sealed container whenever visiting the local butcher.
As elaborate and time consuming as these solutions may seem today, once we make a habit of it they will be just as much of a nuisance as brushing our teeth or combing our hair before going out. The government too must extend the ban to a blanket ban so that no exceptions and loopholes remain. They must also conduct awareness programs and issue warnings against violators.
Plastic is, unfortunately, ubiquitous in our world today. It is clear that we can’t stop using plastic any more than we can stop living. Each one of us is bound to be using plastic in one way or another. While completely eliminating all forms of plastic from our lives may not be a viable thing yet, the least we can do is get rid of polythene bags.