As the polythene industry and the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) battle over when the plastic bag ban will come into effect and its related details, what has become urgent is for a stronger policy discourse on the many ramifications of this step.
Understandably the polythene ban has been hailed by the public as essential to reducing waste. Sri Lanka has undergone much soul-searching over the last few months following the tragic collapse of the Meethotamulla garbage mountain that left around 20 people dead. The adverse impact of plastic bags are undeniable: when they’re not piling up in landfills, they’re blocking drains, littering streets, getting stuck in trees and poisoning wildlife. Banning bags would stop this at the source.
However, when it comes to climate change and carbon footprints the benefit of paper over plastic is not quite so clear cut. One of the most comprehensive research papers on the environmental impact of bags, published in 2007 by an Australian state government agency, found that paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic. That’s primarily because more energy is required to produce and transport paper bags.
As cities in America and elsewhere have discovered after spearheading polythene bag bans, the increase in paper bags is not necessarily better because they typically have a larger carbon footprint than polythene bags and are commonly used only once. Cities such as New York therefore treat plastic and paper bags with the same restrictions and encourage the use of recycled paper bags that are then promoted to poorer communities.
Proponents of the paper bag argue that paper is biodegradable even if it comes with a higher carbon footprint, as it does not poison wildlife and leave toxic residue in the environment.
Even the use of cotton bags is not without controversy as experts point out that the fertiliser, labour and water used for growing cotton gives it a higher carbon footprint. Only 2.4% of the world’s cropland is planted with cotton, yet it accounts for 24% of the global market for insecticides and 11% for pesticides, according to the World Wildlife Fund. A pound of cotton requires more than 5,000 gallons of water on average, a thirst far greater than that of any vegetable and even most meats. And cotton, unlike paper, is not currently recycled in most places.
In fact another Australian study suggests the most environmentally sensible bag might actually be from recycled plastic and not paper. But energy, consumption patterns and pollution are among dozens of variables that change from country to country or even cities, making it impossible for one standard to be set. It only underscores how complex the issue of garbage really is and how much more research, data and scientific decision-making is needed by policymakers.
It is true that Sri Lanka is desperate to address its waste problem but clearly there are no quick fixes. Policies are needed to establish zero waste shops, reduce wastage, encourage reuse and build local recycling facilities so consumers can have diverse options. A public and private program to retrain and retool workers in the polythene industry would also be timely as they would be able to find alternative employment.
Dealing with Sri Lanka’s garbage problem needs a multipronged and multilayered range of solutions over a long period of time. It cannot be bagged in one go.