VIEW: The plastics plague —Saleem H Ali
The noble plastic products that transformed our world in the twentieth century, such as disposable syringes or silicone resins, are now a small percentage of the much larger volume of worthless or harmful plastic products
This month, Uganda marks an environmental milestone that most countries, especially Pakistan, should consider emulating. All disposable one-use plastic bags are now banned in the country on the initiative of Ugandan Finance Minister Ezra Suruma. Furthermore, a 120% tax was levied on thicker ones in this year’s budget. Offenders could face a jail term of three years or a fine of up to $20,000. This seemingly radical step has a direct connection to human health and also to the environmental well-being of citizens across Africa. Apart from the fossil fuel usage needed in their production, plastic bags have a remarkable ability to pollute across borders. The bags manage to travel thousands of miles from their source, clogging fish gills or the bowels of ruminants.
The Ugandan ban follows similar efforts in other parts of East Africa. Tanzania’s Vice-President Ali Muhammad Shein was the trendsetter when he announced a total ban on plastic bags last year, and ordered a switch to recyclable or biodegradable alternatives. Regulation of this synthetic vermin has been growing in recent years. In 2002, the South African government required manufacturers to make plastic bags more durable and expensive to produce and managed a reduction in use of over 90%. The same year, Ireland levied a 15 cent per bag charge for all grocery bags in stores leading to a 95% reduction in usage.
While pricing the bags into oblivion may be just as effective, and more efficient, than an outright ban, the status quo should not be an option. There are far more productive uses for human capital and labour worldwide than to produce such rubbish. Plastic bag proponents argue that their products require less energy to produce and transport than their paper counterparts, but who is asking us to choose between different disposables? Durable shopping bags are back in vogue with even Louis Vuitton manufacturing reusable grocery bags for shoppers. No calamity has beset shoppers in Dublin by this sensible act of conservation. Reusable canvas bags of every style have just become part of the lifestyle and found a permanent place in car trunks or bicycle carriers. But the lessons to be learned in this case go far beyond plastic bags. Human behaviour can change far quicker with sensible environmental policy than we are often willing to acknowledge. Consumer choice often needs to be led by conservation ideas rather than by simply letting our product creativity run amuck. Nowhere is this matter of product profusion more evident than with the plethora of plastic products that clog the marketplace.
Plastics have surely been a miracle material and their importance in the medical profession and multitudinous other areas of human activity deserve to be appreciated. Movie aficionados will surely remember the one-word career advice that Mr McGuire gives to Benjamin in the 1967 movie The Graduate: “Plastics!”
I followed this advice right out of college, armed with my initial degree in chemistry, and worked in the plastics industry with pride as my first job. Yet the noble plastic products that transformed our world in the twentieth century, such as disposable syringes or silicone resins, are now a small percentage of the much larger volume of worthless or harmful plastic products. Furthermore, plastics have also enabled some particularly problematic products such as “purified water” to become an $8 billion industry and a household scourge under deceptive marketing. In the United States, repeated tests on bottled water are showing that that often tap water is more sterile and safer than bottled water.
In developing countries the growth of the industry is even more disturbing. Instead of investing in water treatment plants to provide drinkable water to communities, beverage manufacturers have been able to sanctify water as a product with the help of plastics that elude disposal. Often those very plastic bottles that are supposed to be the symbol of sterility become the conduit of contamination. Counterfeit is easily accomplished and many unsuspecting tourists who find refuge in ostensibly sealed plastic water bottles still come down with dysentery. It is high time that the bottled water industry in Pakistan invests in water treatment facilities and technologies rather than selling plasticised water products. There is money to be made in this just as much as in the bottling sector, and the overall impact on the lives of ordinary Pakistanis will be far greater.
Apart from elite hotel-going market that they currently target, the industry should focus on low-cost solutions to water and sanitation in rural areas. By investing in lasting purification infrastructure and distribution systems in partnership with the government, the water purification industry could actually claim a market share with the rural poor who deserve clean water just as much as the Sahibs and Begums of Gulberg and Defence.
African states are taking a leadership role in the developing world to move the plastics industry in a more positive direction that deserves to be recognised. It is high time that we reconsider our priorities with plastic products that are now the most ubiquitous containers for consumer products worldwide. The industry has to play a leadership role in this regard to use these miracle materials with foresight, clear consumer guidance and a long-term strategy on alternative materials development.
Dr Saleem H Ali is Associate Dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and the editor of the new book “Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution” (MIT Press, 2007). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org