Polythene ban Goodbye for ever ? Or only a temporary measure? | Sunday Observer

Polythene ban Goodbye for ever ? Or only a temporary measure?

To ban or not to ban? Never was a question so fiercely debated in Sri Lanka in recent years. On public platforms, business meetings, even wayside boutiques, inside pubs, buses and trains, the topic invariably veered to one particular question: Should or should not polythene and plastics be banned ? Was or was it not, a justifiable step, given the fact that it is currently the cheapest mode of packaging in our developing country?

Efforts to ban polythene and plastic in Sri Lanka were not something new. The government’s decision to ban polythene and plastic use from September 1 by issuing an Extraordinary Gazette notification, triggered a chain of mixed reactions.

It is not as if the ban came as a complete surprise if you look back at recent efforts to eradicate this menace.

In June this year the Poson Festival District Secretary R.M Wanninayake was quoted as saying plastic and polythene products in the Mihintale sacred area should be prohibited as polythene litters spoil the beauty and endangers health. A study by the US based Business Times underlined the extent of such pollution when it reportedly said in a statement refuted by local environmentalists , that Sri Lanka ranked among the top 20 countries that pump 80% of the global tonnes of plastic into the sea.

Environmentalists who have been repeatedly urging the governments of the past and present to stop this pollution say, data collected by them has revealed that annual imports of plastic and polythene to Sri Lanka have taken a new high in recent years to keep up with rising demand. Currently imports total around 500 -1,000 metric tonnes annually. Daily use of shopping bags is also shockingly high at 20 million and lunch sheets on a daily basis is around 15 million according to recent statistics collected by concerned environmentalists.

Since calls for banning plastic imports is not new, then why has the September decision stirred so much controversy and agitation, when the government finally decided that ‘ enough is enough”? And who, more pointedly are the groups at the forefront of these protests?

Packaging industry

Let’s take the packaging industry for starters. In a news item carried by this newspaper the Sri Lanka Institute of Packaging Secretary, Upul Abeywardene was quoted as saying, “Banning is good- and bad. The outlook seems good. However, you have to consider the point of view of people like:

“It will definitely affect the small business sector who manufacture these products in bulk and sell at retail. Then there are the lunch packet sellers who will also be badly affected”.

Then there are the owners of small eateries who claim there are no alternative wrappers for takeaway customers. In response to the ban, they have decided to pass the costs to the public by raising the price of a lunch packet by Rs 10, for soap and water which they would now have to use to wash plates for the diners, in lieu of plastic and styrene boxes. They also continue to openly violate the government ban on using low density polythene lunch sheets below 20 microns arguing they need to get rid of existing stocks, for which they have spent much, taking loans from banks. The All Island Canteen Owners’ Association President, Asela Sampath was quoted as saying that prices of take away cakes, pastry items, string hoppers, pittu, kottu, too would be revised, as they also required lunch sheets to be wrapped in.

‘That’s unfair” says Central Environment Authority ( CEA) Chairman, Prof. Lal Mervin Dharmasiri.

“The price of a lunch sheet is about 75 cents , whereas the cost of a biodegradable lunch sheet is Rs 1.50 according to manufacturers of these sheets. If it is for the common good it is unreasonable for canteen owners to increase the price of lunch packets and short eats by Rs 10/- due to this marginal change in costs”. Reiterating that the polythene ban effective from September 1 was beneficial for all, he said, it will not only help to clean the environment, it will enhance the quality of people’s health. “ We need to give our wholehearted support to this need”.

He said, food vendors were not without options . In his interview with our sister paper the Daily News on September 4, three days after the ban came into effect, he was quoted as saying that in addition to biodegradable polythene sheets, many suppliers had come forward with alternative packing for cooked food such as banana and lotus leaves. “ They ask for a price of Rs 5/- for each of these leaves”, he said, observing that the flavour and aroma it adds to the food, made it a worthwhile purchase.

The CEA spokesman also observed that the number of persons opposing the ban was only a handful. “The majority are in support of this move,” Prof. Dharmasiri said.

The Gazette notification

On Friday, September 1 President Sirisena issued a Gazette Extraordinary prohibiting the manufacture, sale, offer for sale, offer free of charge, exhibition or use of polythene or any polythene product of 20 microns or less, lunch sheets, polythene grocery bags, food containers and spoons from expanded polystyrene.

The Central Environment Authority has been reported to be the main Authority to be vested with power to implement, monitor, respond to complaints, and look into the quality of the polythene, plastic and styrene products currently in the market, or waiting to be dispatched to retail outlets in different parts of the island. 

CAA’s role

What then is the role of the second most powerful Authority looking after consumer interests – the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA)?

When the Sunday Observer posed this question to the Chairman of the CAA , Hasitha Thilakeratne, his answer took us aback.” We are NOT involved. We have nothing to do with this notification by the CEA. So how can I make a comment about something we are not involved in? ” How can we monitor something that is not within our Consumer ACT?”

Since the President himself has called for full support , we asked if the CAA would be willing to work with the CEA as it was for the common good of all. “ If there‘s a request for our co-operation, we will co-operate and work with the CEA – as long as what we have been requested to do falls under our Consumer Act”, he said.

Raising awareness during their regular consumer awareness programs for the public does not appear to include polythene use . An unnamed source said , “Our duty is to check on sub standard consumer products, expired products, label changes and misleading information on consumer products. We are unable to raise awareness on the polythene products in the market because they don’t have any labels indicating how many microns are being used on them and also because that is the job of the CEA”.

Impacts

Reasons to ban polythene are many.

Former Head, Poisons Information Unit of the NHSL currently attached to the Eye Hospital in Colombo, Dr Waruna Gunatileke listed the following:

1. Poisons the food chain

2. Kills ocean and land animals

3. Clogs drains, polluting waterways

4. Non degradable polythene is not easy to recycle.

5. As it is made from non renewable sources, it causes climate change and global warming.

6. Plastic bags have been banned in several countries already, such as, South Africa, Arabian countries, Uganda ,Somalia, Ruwanda, Botswana, Kenya, Ethiopia and Bangladesh.

Health danger

The most dangerous impact he said was that plastic use posed a significant health hazard.

“Plastic in any form as I have mentioned before, is bad for health. The decision to ban it is thus a most welcome step”.

He said, PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl), PAH(polychromated hydrocarbon) bio accumulate in the food chain, and in the long term could cause cancer in human. “Some chemicals are endocrine disrupters, mimic hormones, cause diabetes polycstic ovaries prostatic cancers”, he warned.

He charged that pollution from the Plastic industry is one of the reasons for the recent unusual weather patterns in the country, such as, heavy flooding, landslides etc.

“Industrialists reap profit at the expense of human health and in the process pollute the environment. A good example is the indiscriminate cultivation of tobacco, which has caused damage to the land, and human health,.” he charged.

To our question, how could we reduce plastic use, he offered the following simple easy to follow golden rules:

  • Say no to straws
  • Use reusable bags
  • Use reusable bottles/cups
  • Buy boxes, not plastic detergents bottles,
  • Give up chewing gum (it’s synthetic rubber, toxic plastic)

Drawback

At the end of the day however, Dr Gunatileke is a disappointed man.

As he notes with concern, in countries like the UK , a number of single use plastic bags have replaced the regular recycle plastic, sending plastic usage plummeting by over 85% after a 5 p charge was imposed in supermarkets on every plastic bag. In the Sri Lanka supermarkets these bags continue to be overused. “ There is a need to regulate this”, he stressed., If you walk along the streets, you will find sili sili bags being used in wayside boutiques and food carts to sell curries, tea, pastries, fried foods. This is dangerous to health, especially, using coloured recycled bags which contain high level of chemicals, including heavy metals.”, he warned.

“Some leading pastry shops, bakeries, and canteens continue to use plastic bags and styrene boxes to pack cooked food. The customer is also to blame. He /she must demand they use safe food wrapping or paper bags for pastries.”

Lunch sheet culture

He says, ‘ Lunch sheet culture’ that has pervaded the country, is not seen in Europe. You see it mostly in south eastern countries where rice and curry , cooked noodles and other cooked food are served as takeaways. What people don’t realise is that eating such food served hot onto these polythene sheets would put their lives on the line, especially, if they do it daily. On contact, oily foods dissolve toxic chemicals of lunch sheet into the food. Putting warm food on lunch sheets increases the leaching of chemicals to food. This is why we should restrict lunch sheet use. The industry should provide safe,food grade alternatives, ensuring human safety .We also need to encourage people to switch to safe lunch boxes, such as ceramic and stainless steel.

Obstacles

Asked to comment on the obstacles that currently stand in the way of the successful implementation of the polythene ban, he said, “ First, we need to change our attitudes. For example, at weddings, funerals and other social events run by catering services it is common to see lunch sheets covering the food plate.

This is unnecessary and purely for the convenience of the caterer who wants to avoid cleaning and washing plates. Hotel staff must promote a healthy meal by encouraging the catering services to directly serve the food onto the plate. This should be the Canteen Policy as well”

Welcoming the current ban he said, “while restrictions, bans and regulations are good for the community, they need to to be maintained consistently.” Now that there’s a ban in force, there should not be a sudden change of mind.

We cannot go back. We need to move on. The key to this lies in two things: Strengthen, encourage and motivate community support to resist polythene. Disseminate the risks they carry and the impacts on our health and the environment. If this is done properly, this menace will soon be a thing of the past”.

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