Confusion reigns over new polythene ban

Tuesday, 5 September 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Himal Kotelawala

Conflicting positions were expressed by the authorities and manufacturers on the much-hyped polythene ban, what with the two parties yesterday referring to contradictory dates on which the ban will come into effect.

There were media reports earlier this week quoting six separate gazette notifications issued by President Maithripala Sirisena in his capacity as Minister of Mahaweli Development and Environment that said the ban was effective from 1 September 2017. This was despite a Cabinet decision last week, as reported by Daily FT, to defer the ban till January next year in order to give the industry some breathing space.

Speaking to Daily FT, Polythene Manufacturers’ and Recyclers’ Association (PMRA) President Anura Wijethunga said manufacturers represented by his association will stick to the 31 December deadline as it will give them time to dispose of their existing stocks and raw materials.

No legal action will be taken till 1 January for the use or manufacture of HDPE (high density polyethylene), said Wijethunga, adding that no fines will be charged in the mean time.

“Manufacture is not prohibited yet. We can do that till 31 December. Taxes have been paid to the Government for the raw materials we have already imported; so we are entitled to dispose of our existing stocks,” he said.

Asked about the gazette notification, Wijethunga said that contrary to that statement, the Cabinet has, upon a request from the industry, “clearly mentioned” that no punishment or fine will be meted out until 1 January, meaning the Cabinet decision will override any pronouncements by the authorities.

Asked if the industry was happy with this turn of events, Wijethunga was still critical of the decision. 

“If the Government is insisting on that, let them go see what the repercussions are. We have put forward our proposals; the authorities didn’t want to listen to us. We’ll see what the repercussions are,” he said.

When asked to elaborate on these repercussions, Wijethunga merely said: “The banning is for some purpose, isn’t it? They have switched from HDPE to LDPE (low density polyethylene). We have asked to implement oxobiodegradable standards in Sri Lanka. This has not been done.”

According to the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), oxobiodegradable was not favourably looked upon because it breaks down into small fragments and also because it contains harmful heavy metals such as nickel and cobalt.

Dismissing this objection, Wijethunga said any material would have good and bad qualities. 

“That’s why the Standard Institute is there to monitor it. There are products with heavy metals. We know that too. But there are so many products without heavy metals that are harmless to the environment,” he said.

The authorities are still considering this alternative, he added, and the different stakeholders have yet to reach a consensus. Wijethunga said the CEA ought to consult the universities of Moratuwa and Sri Jayawardenepura for expertise on viable alternatives.

Wijethunga reiterated that the CEA must allow the industry to dispose of its existing stocks, and they will therefore stick to the Cabinet’s deadline as the Minsters’ word is “superior to” that of CEA officials.

Meanwhile, CEA Chairman Prof. Lal Dharmasiri insisted that the both the Cabinet decision sent in to the authority and the gazette notifications both say 1 September as the correct date.

“As state officials, that’s all we shall consider. Our decision has been that the ban is effective starting 1 September,” he told Daily FT.

“I don’t go to the Cabinet. Nothing different has been communicated to me in writing,” he added.

However, Prof. Dharmasiri said that the ban is not going to be implemented overnight, as it’s going to be a gradual process. 

“It can’t happen in one day. Even today someone approached us seeking certification for biodegradable polythene manufacture - a big producer. This cannot be done in a matter of days,” he said, acknowledging the industry’s claims of having stocks it needed to clear.

There has been some progress made so far, said Prof. Dharmasiri, referring to sites the CEA has inspected, with some entities opting for paper bags over polythene bags.

“Some supermarkets have stopped giving shopping bags - but there is a problem there: They don’t give paper bags. Instead of the shopping bag they sell an alternative bag. They have a responsibility to put in a [different type of bag and give],” he said.

Asked if discussions are still ongoing with industry representatives, Prof. Dharmasiri said: “We’re following the gazette; but we’re further observing the situation and deciding on what action to take going forward.”

The ban is now in effect, he reiterated.