Boys played amid stinky puddles and dodged trash sludge oozing from plastic bags carpeting a muddy riverbed in Saidpur, a village that connects to the capital Islamabad by a narrow road. “God forgive us,” says a woman watching nearby, referring to the trash.
Munira recalls the river stones glinting under fresh water as a child. Now, “there’s so much trash,” says the 65-year-old, who only has one name.
Pakistan has long struggled with its copious plastic bag trash – the country consumes tens of billions of single-use bags a year. Estimates range from 55 billion to over 112 billion, and there’s little waste management.
Over more than a decade, Pakistani provinces have repeatedly imposed bans on single-use plastic bags made out of polythene, but they’ve faltered. Residents haven’t been able to access cheap alternatives, like compostable plastic bags, and police haven’t been able to effectively enforce the bans.
The coalition government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has been in power for the past year, hopes this time will be different. In July, his administration announced a ban on disposable plastic bags in Islamabad and surrounding areas, including Saidpur. When the ban takes effect on August 14, residents may be fined about $70 for being caught using a bag – nearly a month’s wages for a laborer. Manufacturers will face larger fines for making plastic bags as will shops for distributing them.
According to Hammad Shamimi, a senior official at the Ministry of Climate Change, “polythene bags have been banned. There is a provision that for hospital waste, for municipal waste, big bags will be exempted,” he says, “subject to the condition that they will submit a recycling plan to this ministry.”
August 14 is Pakistan’s independence day, and the ban will celebrate the beginning of Pakistan’s independence from plastic, says Zartaj Gul Wazir, the minister of state for climate change.
Looming in the minds of environmentalists and officials is nearly a decade of failed attempts to ban single-use plastic bags. The provincial government of Sindh, which holds Karachi, the country’s largest city of some 13 million people, first tried to ban bags in 2006. It largely failed. Then in 2009, the federal government tried to ban plastic bags that did not contain biodegradable materials. It failed.
The Sindh government tried again in 2014 to ban the bags – effectively copying the federal government’s law, says Waris Ali Gabol, the deputy director of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Sindh. It also failed.
Gabol says shopkeepers from the last ban in Sindh often presented bags to police inspectors that were stamped with information saying they were biodegradable. But the police did not have a budget to check out those claims in a lab. More broadly, residents from across Sindh say they were not even aware that a ban was in place, suggesting that the government had not effectively publicized the prohibition on bags, created awareness of the harms of plastic or even encouraged police to fine violators.
The climate minister, Wazir, says this new ban would be more likely to succeed because it has the full backing of Prime Minister Khan, who has thrown himself behind environmental projects in the past. Khan’s political party, for example, was part of a provincial government that planted over 700 million trees for the three years ending in 2017, earning praise from the Pakistan branch of the World Wildlife Fund.
“The government is pushing an environmental agenda, and they’re prioritizing the environment which is good,” says Hassaan Sipra, a scientific officer at the Center for Climate Research and Development at COMSATS University in Islamabad. “But the problem with Pakistan has always been that while we have the legislation, we don’t have the political will to enforce it.”
Wazir and other staffers described the new ban as a pilot project. If it works, they hope to use the legislation and acquired experience to replicate the ban in all four of Pakistan’s provinces.
To prepare, notices have been published in newspapers and on social media. The ministry’s Twitter account posted an image of a trash fire near an iconic building in Islamabad, emblazoned with “No More Plastic Bags!” The image refers to what often happens to trash when it isn’t collected — residents burn it.
The ministry will distribute tens of thousands of cotton, jute and thick, reusable plastic bags to government employees, emblazoned in Urdu with “get rid of plastic, go for a greener environment.”
A recent July day in Saidpur suggested the challenges Pakistan faces. The village is tacked onto Islamabad by a narrow road. On the outskirts, cows munched on trash-filled plastic bags tossed near a dumpster. Inside the village, past a cluster of upscale restaurants patronized by wealthy Islamabad residents, goats and chickens pecked through trash among boys playing cricket. The bags are a key problem because they physically clog waterways.
Sanitation is a huge issue across Pakistan, where garbage collection is spotty and often focused on wealthy areas. Residents in poorer neighborhoods are left to grapple with trash on their own. In Saidpur, for instance, residents said authorities often promised to dispatch garbage collectors, but they didn’t come very often. So residents toss the trash in the dry riverbed. Scavengers take plastic bottles and cardboard, both of which can be recycled for money in Pakistan, but leave the rest. Residents say their children suffer from skin rashes, hepatitis and dengue fever, which they attribute to the trash problem.
This being the monsoon season, Munira, the 65-year-old woman, said residents waited for heavy rains to dislodge the bags, leaving a trail of detritus through canals linked to the Indus river basin, which runs down the length of Pakistan.
From there, the bags of trash wash into the Arabian Sea. It’s unclear how much waste ends up in the ocean – but enough, that according to a 2018 study, the Indus was the second largest contributor of plastic pollution from a river that ends up in the world’s oceans. (The largest contributor was the Yangtze River in China, outstripping the next nine rivers.)
Already, the August 14 ban has had an impact. At a plastic bag factory built between farmlands in rural Islamabad, news of the ban had caused a sales slump, said owner Iftikhar Ahmed Jamal. Only three of his 12 machines were working, stamping bags with slogans of surrounding supermarkets. To compensate, Jamal laid off about half of his 35 workers. Remaining workers said they were worried.
“If it’s shut down, I’ll have to find another job,” said Mohammad Zaheer, a married 25-year-old who makes about $90 a month. “Of course it will be difficult, because there is much unemployment,” he said, fluttering his fingers, bent askew from being crushed in a machine.
There’s no plan to compensate workers or business owners in the industry, which employs tens of thousands across Pakistan – an issue that environmentalists have warned will affect future action on plastic waste.
And Jamal argued the ban was misguided. Pakistan didn’t have a plastic problem – it had a waste management and recycling problem, he says. Wazir, the minister, acknowledged this but said it was one reason why a ban was necessary.
Environmentalists say the ban already appears flawed.
“You have to make people aware of the dangers of this single-use plastic, and then implement a ban,” says Malaika Riasat of 5 Mailay, a group that collects trash to raise environmental awareness around Islamabad. There hasn’t been any effective advocacy on plastic’s perils, Riasat says, and affordable alternatives like cotton bags for consumers aren’t available. She says government officials should go door-to-door and through marketplaces to explain the new ban, distribute cloth bags to consumers and explain the dangers of plastic use.
“If I want to go out and buy a cloth bag, are you providing cloth bags to different shops?” She gestured toward the working-class strip mall where she was collecting garbage on a recent Sunday – there was no alternatives to plastic bags anywhere in sight.
And in a nearby market, hawkers and shoppers say they are flummoxed by what they are meant to do even as most welcomed the ban. Most people said plastic bags had made their parts of Pakistan look ugly. Older residents said they’d dig out cloth bags they used before switching to plastic. But the sellers – what would they serve hot food and sandwiches in?
Tarek, 40, pointed at his chickpea curry, piled high on a platter on a wooden cart. He serves the dish to customers in plastic bags. He favored a ban but “there must be some alternative,” he said. “You can’t carry curry in a cloth bag.”
He gestured to Styrofoam boxes piled up nearby and said, maybe he’d use them instead.
He didn’t seem to know that Styrofoam is harder to recycle than plastic. “Styrofoam is actually worse. Most waste recovery facilities don’t recycle it,” says Sipra of the Center for Climate Research and Development.