Every year, one trillion plastic bags – single use – are used, equating to two million per minute. Different countries have different usage levels, but the entire world has to commit to reducing this usage. Sri Lanka’s efforts at reducing plastic have ironically had a backlash on the environment and worsened the situation because many people have not changed their habits.
Environmentalists and industrialists have said the Government’s strategy to reduce the heavy use of polythene used by the public by dictating the production of thicker, reusable bags has in fact backfired. The thicker bags, which were intended to be reused, also produce more plastic waste in the environment and require more resin, insist experts.
They said the dormant 2007 legislation that was revived in January 2016 by President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also Environment Minister, to require plastic bags thicker than 20 microns has led to the doubling of resin imports but not seen a reduction in waste and most people still dispose of bags after one use. Given the massive garbage problem Sri Lanka is currently facing, it is imperative that people are made aware of this issue and plastic bag manufacturers as well as resin importers are held accountable within a better policy system.
There are a lot of problem associated with plastic bags, which is why bans or fees are in place in many countries. The oldest is in Denmark, which started in 1993, whereby charges are levied for the use of plastic bags. This made use drop by 60% quite quickly. Ireland has perhaps the best known measure, which is the 2002 ‘bag tax’. Consumers would have to actually purchase bags. This resulted in a 90% drop in bag usage and a great reduction in litter. By 2007, usage was rising again, which led to an increase in the price of bags.
Ireland and Denmark are just two successful examples and many other countries across the world are following suit. The European Union will require an 80% reduction of plastic bags by 2019. This means virtually every European country is now considering ways to bring about reductions.
The main driver behind bag bans is to lower how much plastic finds its way into the marine world. About 94% of all birds have plastic in their stomachs, which is also found in the stomachs of many endangered species. At least 267 different species of animals have suffered as a result of ingestion of or entanglement with plastic. In fact, these results caused Australia to ban bags locally in 2003, in an effort to protect the migrating whales in Tasmania. In Sri Lanka even elephants have died after ingesting plastic, mostly in the form of bags. This tragedy needs to end. There are other reasons to ban bags as well. In Kenya, for instance, it is done to stop the spread of Malaria and in Sri Lanka it would help stem dengue. In Bangladesh, the Philippines and Cameroon, it protects the sewage systems and avoids floods. In Texas and Indian communities, it is done to protect the cow. In Mauritania, for instance, 70% of sheep and cattle deaths are related to plastic ingestion. The same concern exists for camels in the United Arab Emirates.
Rwanda perhaps has the strictest strategy. Their ban started in 2008, and passengers often have to hand over all their plastic bags. Unfortunately, no statistics exist on the effectiveness of this ban. South Africa banned certain bags by 2003 and taxed thicker ones. Botswana put up a fee in 2007 and retailers have reported a 50% drop in bag usage. Some 16 countries on the African continent have bag bans and taxes in place.
Sri Lanka could easily gain from formulating similar polices and bag their bag problem.