Every year, Karachi floods during monsoon season. One of the biggest reasons for this, besides encroachment, is the humble little plastic (polythene) bag - in their thousands.
When a section of the II Chundrigar Road - Karachi’s very own Wall Street and perhaps the road that alone accounts for a substantial slice of the country’s financial revenue - was swallowed up by a sinkhole last month, experts pointed to the presence of underground water.
What caused that water to accumulate there was not the record rains that the city had received or the fact that Pakistan’s financial thoroughfare remained impassable with waist-high water for multiple days; it was because the larger-than-life drain pipes were completely clogged with garbage, including plastic bags.
These bags are a constant nuisance in choking drains and stormwater drains of the city. The situation becomes critical during the monsoon season when Karachi has been receiving above-average rainfall for the past three consecutive years.
Subsequently, this causes excess rainwater to overflow from the drains, flood roads, and even entire localities.
The accumulation of plastic bags and garbage in drains causes the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation to spend around Rs500 million every year to clear them before monsoon season, said KMC Metropolitan Commissioner SM Afzal Zaidi.
This year it decided to adopt a different strategy: ban polythene bags.
On May 13, 2022 – almost two months before the start of monsoon season in Karachi – a council resolution (CR-115/2022) was approved by Zaidi, paving the way for a ban on single-use plastic bags.
A month later, the KMC imposed a complete ban on the manufacture, sale and use of plastic bags in Karachi. The ban was imposed under section 132 of the Sindh Local Government Act 2013.
If at first you don’t succeed…
This, however, is not the first time that the government has attempted to ban the pesky plastic bags.
In 2002, the city council of the then City District Government Karachi (CDGK) approved and passed two resolutions, numbers 61 and 62, calling for the ban on the manufacture, sale and use of polythene bags.
This was when Niamatullah Khan of the Jamaat-e-Islami was Karachi’s City Nazim (Mayor).
The resolutions pointed out that additional garbage was found in the form of plastic bags, which were hazardous to the environment and atmosphere.
Moreover, the resolutions presented the case that these bags get stuck in overhead electrical wires and damage them during rains.
It also said that these plastic bags clog up the sewage and stormwater drains, which cause the rainwater and sewage to flow onto the roads.
This not only damages the city’s infrastructure but also causes misery for the city’s millions of residents. The larger pools can even become death traps.
Then in 2006, the government of then Sindh chief minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim imposed a ban on manufacturing, selling, and use of plastic bags through an act called the “Sindh prohibition on the manufacture, sale and use of polythene bags Act, 2006” promulgated on December 22, 2006.
The law prohibited the manufacture, sale, and use of “black” plastic bags, which were thinner than 30 microns in the province.
Anyone found defying the law would be “punished with imprisonment for the term may extend to three (3) months or with fine which may extend to fifty (50) thousand rupees or with both.”
In case of a repeat violation, the law stated, “the fine shall extend to Rs100,000, and the term of imprisonment shall extend to six months.
But the law and its impact seemed to evaporate over time, and plastic bags returned to the city.
Around 11 years later, the KMC city council 2017 once again presented and approved another council resolution.
Moved under MQM-P’s Karachi Mayor Wasim Akhtar, resolution number 80 demanded implementing the ban on the manufacture, sale, and use of polythene bags.
Barring minor tweaks and updates, the resolution was almost identical to the earlier document.
KMC Administrator Barrister Murtaza Wahab issued a notification on August 5, 2021, banning the use of plastic bags once.
Another resolution was approved on May 19, 2022, stating that the KMC, as per section 132 (15) of SLGA 2013, has banned plastic bags and will take legal action against violators from June 15, 2022.
Why KMC failed to take action
KMC Metropolitan Commissioner Afzal Zaidi told SAMAA TV that under the SLGA-2013, it is the prerogative of the municipal corporation to impose and enforce a ban on the manufacture, sale and use of plastic bags.
But two months since plastic bags were banned, no significant action has been witnessed against the manufacturers and suppliers of polythene bags in Karachi.
This begs the question: why?
At the beginning of August 2022, the Sindh chief secretary transferred KMC anti-encroachment senior director Bashir Siddiqui.
Reports suggested that he had raided warehouses and shops in old city areas and confiscated large quantities of plastic bags.
Since his transfer, the process has come to a halt.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the sources in KMC claimed that an influential cartel is behind the business of manufacturing plastic bags.
“This lobby enjoys political backing of multiple political parties,” they said, adding that these are the people behind Siddiqui’s transfer.
The sources claimed that these individuals have plastic bag manufacturing units in SITE and Korangi.
KMC commissioner, however, refutes these allegations and maintains that the authority had received against Siddiqui. He alleged that the KMC anti-encroachment director was facilitating some plastic bag wholesellers and released their impounded consignments.
Zaidi admitted that the ban on polythene bags imposed in 2002, 2006, and 2017 could not be implemented. “We don’t have any choice but to educate the society,” he said.
Environmental lawyer Zubair Abro said that bans on plastic bags would continue to fail until viable alternatives are introduced.
There is no proper substitute for plastic bags, he concluded.
He said a strong “will” is required [to bring about the desired change], adding that they do not have a proper solid waste management system.
Abro says the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO), the National Logistics Cell (NLC), and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had taken responsibility for cleaning Karachi’s stormwater drains which had flooded after the torrential rains in 2020.
Following that, Karachi’s administrative departments, including the KMC and the SSWMB, failed to disburse their duties towards cleaning stormwater drains.
Since these authorities lack a proper garbage disposal system, they resort to banning plastic bags to escape blame.
They are ever eager to ban plastic bags as they show their incompetence (kyoun kay plastic bags in ki nalaiqi zahir kartay hain to inn ko ban kar duo).
He said that the plastic bags manufactured in the city do not dissolve even after years. Instead, layers of plastic bag sediment damage the ecosystem.
A June 2022 study found that almost 90% of the waste generated in the country is disposed of through open dumping, landfilling, and open burning, while only 8% is recycled.
Saquib Ejaz Hussain, a senior environmentalist and CEO of EHS Services, said it takes decades for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill site.
Instead of breaking down, he said these bags undergo a photo-degradation process and finally become part of the environment as microplastics.
Hussain said we also consume these microplastics through the food we eat and the air we breathe.
Hussain maintained that the polythene bags tend to absorb toxins and continue to pollute the air, water and land.
“Increase in the use of plastics has already burdened our oceans, emission of green gases besides toxicity level in the air, causing climate crisis and social pollution,” he added.
A 2019 study found that around 88% - 95% of plastics polluting world’s oceans come from just ten rivers, including the mighty Indus.
Unfortunately, the Sindh government has failed to implement the ban on single-use plastic.
He said the government must take strict action against the manufacturers and suppliers of polythene bags instead of shopkeepers.
The ban can only be implemented if the supply of plastic bags in the market is discouraged, he said, adding that public awareness campaigns through social media should essentially be run as part of the process.
Educate first, then ban
Metropolitan Commissioner Zaidi said that the Karachi Port Trust (KPT), Pakistan Navy, Civil Aviation Authority, and other institutions have been raising the issue of plastic bags with the KMC administration in every meeting.
“If I dig any road of Karachi, at some point you will see remains of plastic bags from the time when the road was being dug for construction, it shows that the plastic is non-degradable material,” the commissioner said.
Zaidi said that the bio-degradable plastic bags are acceptable by law. Still, manufacturers don’t want to switch as it will increase costs.
He said that the manufacturers and retailers have to switch this option, claiming that it will alter manufacturing costs by only as much as Rs1 or Rs2.
“They can pass this on by increasing the prices of their product in the larger interest of the society and its environment,” Zaidi added.
Zaidi said that the KMC had planned a drive against plastic bags in two phases:
In the first phase, the KMC started an awareness campaign in Karachi markets by distributing handbills, banners, and posters discouraging the use of polythene bags. Currently, this is running in the South and Central districts.
In the second phase, the KMC, along with the district administration and police, will start a crackdown and confiscate the polythene bags.
Sindh Solid Waste Management Board Managing Director Zubair Ahmed Channa shares similar thoughts.
Channa said that there is a need for change in people’s behavior to overcome the use of plastic bags, and authorities need to run awareness campaigns in this regard.
He admitted that Karachi’s infrastructure had been destroyed due to a lack of technical thought.
Channa said a campaign is being planned by the SSWMB, adding that it will take three to four months to execute.
He said the awareness campaign would cost an estimated $1 million, but the budget can be extended up to $2 million.
Ban import of pet/recycle plastic
The SSWMB managing director blamed the import of pet/recycled plastic as the basic cause of environmental pollution.
The authorities should ban the import first and seal the factories later to implement the ban on single-use plastic bags.
“We need improvement of infrastructure and sealing plastic bags manufacturing factories,” he added.
Channa said that the SSWMB would cooperate with the KMC during the campaign against plastic bags.