Pakistan’s plastic predicament-Blogs

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Pakistan’s plastic predicament

Plastic waste has evolved from being a mere environmental concern to a pressing crisis in Pakistan, mirroring global trends. Pakistan ranks sixth among the largest plastic waste generators worldwide, and third in Asia. It produces approximately 49.6 million tonnes of solid waste annually. Nearly nine per cent of it comprises plastics, including a range of single-use bags, packaging materials and cutlery. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan estimation, a significant portion, approximately 65 per cent, of the waste found along the country’s coast consists of water bottles, caps and plastic packaging, posing a severe threat to marine life and biodiversity. Moreover, approximately 70 per cent of the plastic waste is mismanaged. This can be attributed to unsustainable production and consumption patterns, inadequate waste management infrastructure and weak regulatory enforcement due to policy inconsistencies. Import of plastic waste from various countries aggravates the domestic plastic waste crisis, compounding environmental challenges.

Governments at both federal and provincial levels have tried to address the issue, including through the imposition of shadow bans on single-use plastic items. However, these efforts have yielded limited success due to a lack of widespread awareness and policy coherence across the country.

The Punjab boasts a comparatively better waste management system than other provinces. Yet, despite regulations like the Punjab Prohibition Ordinance of 2002, which prohibits the manufacture, sale, use and import of polythene bags of less than 15 microns thickness, enforcement has been lacking because of the absence of eco-friendly alternatives in the market. Furthermore, the recently notified Punjab Plastic Management Strategy, though well-intentioned, requires reconsideration. Rushing into policies like Extended Producer Responsibility within an impractical six-month timeframe may not yield the desired outcomes. This strategy mandates producers to establish a system for the collection of plastic waste generated by their products, accompanied by financial and physical liability. However, the compressed timeline may not afford adequate opportunity for producers to develop a functional system on account of the requisite investment and infrastructure needs.

It is imperative to establish a robust foundation for plastic waste management before notifying such regulations. This necessitates the development of a comprehensive strategy encompassing at-source segregation and recycling infrastructure. Additionally, eco-friendly alternatives must be readily accessible to consumers prior to the imposition of bans or restrictions on plastic products.

In other provinces, inadequate enforcement of regulations has hampered effective plastic waste management, with urban centres like Peshawar, Karachi and Quetta facing significant challenges due to improper disposal.

The corporate sector has a crucial role in addressing plastic waste management in Pakistan. Many businesses, startups and SMEs in Pakistan are actively engaged in addressing the challenge through initiatives centred on plastic waste collection, recycling and up-cycling. Some of these endeavours encompass innovative projects aimed at repurposing plastic waste into recycled products, construction materials, furniture and various other useful products. Collaborative initiatives such as the CoRe Alliance are striving towards reducing plastic packaging waste by advocating for a circular economy and encouraging plastic waste collection and recycling by producer organisations.

Lack of investment in recycling infrastructure is another challenge. The recycling industry in Pakistan, has witnessed a marked downturn recently.

Pakistan produces approximately 49.6 million tonnes of solid waste annually. Nearly nine per cent of it comprises plastics, including a range of single-use items like bags, packaging materials and cutlery.

Plastics are intricately linked to the climate change crisis, because of their significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. A recent report on Climate Impacts of Plastics by GRID Adrenal, a UNEP partner, has concluded that plastics release substantial amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It says plastics account for approximately four per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions annually. This impact spans every stage of their life cycle, from raw material extraction to production, consumption and disposal. Therefore, it is imperative to manage plastic waste efficiently.

In this context, the Living Indus Initiative has emerged as a pivotal solution to improving plastic waste management and advancing climate action in Pakistan. Developed jointly by the Ministry of Climate Change and the United Nations in Pakistan, under the directive of the Prime Minister’s Committee on Climate Change, this initiative aims to restore the ecological health of the Indus Basin. It lists 25 high-impact interventions for policymakers, practitioners, and civil society to spearhead and support ecological restoration efforts.

A key intervention proposed by the Living Indus Initiative is the establishment of “zero plastic waste cities” in the Indus Basin. This initiative aligns directly with Pakistan’s commitment to the Global Plastic Action Plan, which seeks to foster a circular economy for plastics. Targeting major cities in the basin, including Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Hyderabad, Multan, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta, the initiative aims to minimise plastic waste in these urban centres. The purpose is to make substantial contributions to the broader efforts aimed at combating plastic pollution in Pakistan.

The plastic waste problem is not intractable. Several developing countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Bolivia and some neighbouring countries in South Asia, have implemented successful strategies to address their plastic waste crises. These hold valuable lessons for Pakistan. These initiatives emphasise the importance of eco-friendly packaging, educational programmes, incentivised participation and decentralised systems to address plastic waste and promote waste-to-resource conversion.

There is a need to adopt a circular economy approach. For this, a comprehensive strategy is necessary. This involves immediate investment in waste management infrastructure, including collection, sorting and disposal systems, alongside upgrading existing facilities for efficient collection and recycling, particularly encouraging investments in capacity-building programmes for personnel involved in waste management companies and municipal governments. The government needs to work on a “national waste management strategy” to improve basic waste management and establish efficient waste collection and sorting at-source mechanisms.

Simultaneously, measures must be taken to phase out single-use plastics over the next five years, promoting research and development of eco-friendly alternatives. Long-term investment in advanced recycling technologies, coupled with regulatory updates and enforcement, is crucial to ensure compliance with waste management regulations. Collaboration with other countries to address plastic waste import and the establishment of localised solutions tailored to various provinces’ needs is imperative.

Intensive community awareness campaigns and education initiatives are needed to engage citizens and foster behavioural change. Establishing industry-academia links can facilitate research on plastic waste management. Capacity building within the waste management sector, including regular waste audits, can improve data collection and analysis. Implementation of EPR policies over the next five years, support for the informal sector and regular policy reviews are also crucial. Incentives for industry to adopt sustainable practices and scaling up startups that provide solutions to plastic waste are essential components of this strategy. Ensuring government ownership and linkage with industry, including producer organisations and recyclers, are crucial for fostering circularity and sustainability in the sector.

As the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee concludes its fourth session in Canada, Pakistan needs to align its actions with regard to plastic with international commitments. Only through concerted action at both federal and provincial levels and private sector engagement can Pakistan effectively mitigate its plastic waste crisis and contribute to a cleaner, more sustainable future for generations to come.

The writer heads the Ecological Sustainability and Circular Economy at SDPI and is associated with the Living Indus Initiative as a consultant on plastic pollution.

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