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Pakistan Tests A Plastic Bag Ban In Islamabad

Aug 6, 2019
Originally published on August 6, 2019 9:42 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now to Pakistan, where the government says the 55 billion plastic bags it uses each year has become a menace to society. Normally, everything from pencils to takeout curries are packed in plastic bags, but now Pakistan is becoming the latest government to try to impose a ban. Here's NPR's Diaa Hadid in Islamabad.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Shouting in foreign language).

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Boys play cricket, sloshing through stinky puddles. They dodge sludge oozing out of plastic bags and the chickens that are pecking at it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: It's all strewn in a riverbed that snakes through Saidpur. It's a village near the capital. Munira is about 65. She watches the boys and recalls when this dump was once a river.

MUNIRA: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: She says the water was so clear, you could see the pebbles. Now she's waiting for the rain to wash away the bags. It'll give a few days of relief, but many of those bags will flow into Pakistan's main river system, the Indus, and from there, they'll wash into the sea. And that's made Pakistan's plastic problem a global problem because the Indus is the second-largest contributor of plastic pollution from rivers into the world's oceans. That's according to a recent report. Hammad Shamimi is a senior official at Pakistan's Ministry of Climate Change.

HAMMAD SHAMIMI: We are just destroying environment like anything. So it was about time we did something. And we took some drastic measure. And as one of our slogan goes, do something drastic. Cut the plastic.

HADID: Literally. The government will ban flimsy plastic bags on August 14. Then people caught with a bag could be fined $70. That's nearly a month's wages here for many. And as an alternative, Shamimi will distribute thousands of cotton and jute bags.

SHAMIMI: This is what the ministry has done.

HADID: He shows me one.

SHAMIMI: I feel so happy holding this bag. This bag will get rid of 300 plastic bags.

HADID: The ban will apply in Islamabad and surrounding areas.

SHAMIMI: If it's successful, obviously, it can be replicated elsewhere.

HADID: On the outskirts of the city, news of the upcoming ban has caused a drop in sales at this plastic bag factory. On a recent day, only three of 12 machines were operating. But as a result, the owner says he's fired about half the workers, and those who remain are scared for their jobs, like Mohammad Zaheer. He makes about $90 a month.

MOHAMMAD ZAHEER: (Through interpreter) If it is shut down, then I'll have to find another job. But, of course, it will be difficult because there is much unemployment.

HADID: There's no plan to compensate plastic industry workers. And the factory's owner, Iftikhar Ahmed Jamal, says the government's ban is misguided. Pakistan doesn't have a plastic problem, he says. It has a waste management problem.

IFTIKHAR AHMED JAMAL: (Through interpreter) I mean that the solid waste management that are being run under the government, they do not perform their responsibilities. They do not collect it. That's why they get here and there in the rivers and ocean and at various places. So if they manage it, things could be better.

HADID: Jamal says the government should collect trash properly and recycle. At a local market, there's confusion. Tarek sells chickpea curry. It's piled high on large dishes, sprinkled with cilantro. He sells servings in plastic bags. It's easier to take away. And he supports the ban but says...

TAREK: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: You can't carry a curry in a cloth bag. So he gestures to the Styrofoam boxes piled up nearby and says, maybe he'll use that instead. He doesn't seem to know they're just as bad for the environment. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.