Ban on polythene and plastic products ‘Pan Malla’ waiting to come back

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By 2017-08-13

By Darshana Ashoka Kumara

The consequences of the use of polythene and plastic products have become a global threat to the eco-system. They are not readily biodegradable.

The disposal of such material remains a challenge, although a few developed countries have been able to dispose of polythene and plastic products in an efficient manner.

Plastic is a 20th century product. The first fully synthetic plastic was Bakelite invented in New York in 1907 by Leo Baekeland who was a Belgian-American chemist. He is the one who coined the term 'plastic'.

Polyethylene or polythene is known to be the most common plastic the global production of which exceeds 80 million tonnes annually.

Plastic is a malleable matter that can be cast into solid items. Hence, it became popular during the latter part of the 20th century.

Technically, it evolved as a ubiquitous component in every industry.

Useful innovations

"Polythene and plastic are useful innovations for the mankind. However, we face a serious problem as plastic is not biodegradable. Nowadays people use polythene for many tasks.

Its use must be regulated," Prof. Hemanthi Ranasinghe, Dean of Graduate Studies of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura said.

According to the statistics, more than one trillion lightweight single-use plastic bags are being used all over the world. Things have got out of hand and the plastic bags have posed a serious threat to all living beings on the planet. A report released by the Plymouth University pointed out that around 700 marine animals such as whales, dolphins and turtles are severely affected by discarded plastic products.

Sri Lanka has been ranked as the world's fifth most egregious sea polluter by the International Business Times as it discards around 1.6 metric tons of ocean-bound plastics to the sea annually, though Sri Lanka is an island which is small in size as compared to the other top sea polluters.

Chemicals

Various chemicals such as phthalates, bisphenol A, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and tetrabromobisphenol A are used to prouce plastic. Some of these chemicals are used for flexibility and strength. The chemical used in plastic are capable of altering the hormone system in animals. Even by scratching or heating, plastic can release chemicals harmful to man.

"Excessive use of polythene is causing a huge damage to the environment. Many wild animals in Trincomalee and some other areas died as a result of consuming polythene. Discarded polythene ends up in waterways causing blockages. Toxic gases generated when burning polythene could also cause cancer," Prof. Ranasinghe said.

The government has decided to ban the use of polythene and plastic items and the Cabinet has granted its approval. The ban will have short, medium and long-term measures to discourage polythene use. The short-term measures will be implemented from 1 September. As a result, polythene cannot be used for decorations at functions. What is more, importing and producing lunch sheets, containers, plates, cups and spoons using polystyrene or burning polythene and plastic in open places will be banned.

Long term programme

"We have a short, middle and long-term programme to discourage the use of polythene. We are trying to reduce the use of lunch sheets, polythene carryall bags and rigifoam lunch boxes as a matter of urgency. At present we collect around 300 to 500 metric tonnes of discarded plastic and polythene a day," Ajith Weerasundara, Director of the Waste Management Unit of the Central Environment Authority said.

Segregating discarded polythene and plastic products has become a difficult task. Even the Municipal Councils recently decided to accept only segregated plastic and polythene waste. The segregation makes the recycling process more effective and productive. It saves a large amount of money, energy and time. Most of the developed countries employ techniques such as kerbside collections. It is an efficient way to manage waste collection in households, particularly in urban and suburban areas. In developed countries purpose-built vehicles are used to pick up household waste in containers. But such a system is not in operation in Sri Lanka. Such practices need to be introduced without delay.

"Though we have asked the people to segregate the waste, they are not fully committed to it. So, we have to re-segregate the waste using gloves as the officials at the dumping sites do not accept garbage without segregation." A.A. Bandusena, a Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) employee told Ceylon Today.

Drug addicts

"A new problem has cropped up with drug addicts collecting garbage from houses to earn some money. They throw the garbage away at public places such as roads in an irresponsible manner." he said.

Kanishka Rajaguru, 22, from Avissawella said he is doing his bit to reduce the use of polythene. Nilanthi, 38, from Bandaragama said she refuses to accept polythene bags given by supermarkets. She uses her own bag which is biodegradable.

Ishanka Maduwanthi, 29, a shop owner said she started using brown paper bags, but they are more expensive than polythene products.

With the introduction of the ban on polythene and plastic products, industrialists fear that they would run out of business.

"I have no bank accounts. I borrow money from the bank and do business. I have invested more than Rs 150 million to build and operate my factory. Those who imposed the ban on polythene and plastic products have no sense of the industry," Harsha Pieris, Managing Director of Pack World (Pvt) Ltd said.

Though polythene ban is a political decision, it will affect everybody in society. Industrialists say the ban will soon be a social issue.

They need more time to cushion the impact of the ban on polythene and plastic products. "There are 328 registered polythene companies. It has become a domestic industry as well. More than 200, 000 people are employed in the industry. Sometimes the figure can be around one million. Even some traders in Pettah will be affected. The polythene industry is linked to other industries as well," Harsha Pieris said.

To cope with the environmental pollution created by the use of polythene and plastic products, we need to change our lifestyle.

"In the past we used only ceramic plates to consume food. But many eateries use polythene sheets to cover the ceramic plates as they are lazy to wash them. I think such attitudes should change," Prof. Ranasinghe said.

She also said countries such as Bangladesh have come up with many alternatives. For instance, biodegradable jute bags have replaced polythene bags. She said even the traditional Pan Malla should be reintroduced.

A plastic-free life will be a distant dream, but managing the grotesque plastic waste properly and changing the lifestyle of the people will lead to a lasting solution.

Pix by Laksiri Rukman and Darshana Ashoka Kumara

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