Use of plastic and polythene Kicking the habit Raising public awareness on non-degradable products

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By 2017-12-31

By Risidra Mendis

For many years, the polythene menace has caused havoc in the environment and has resulted in deaths of both animals and humans. But, despite the serious damage caused to the environment by the irresponsible use and disposal of polythene, no measures were taken to minimize its usage until recently.

The ban on some products of non-degradable polythene that came into effect recently was accepted quite positively by the public and has, to a certain extent reduced the usage of non-degradable polythene products in the market.

The ban on lunch sheets, grocery bags, shopping bags and polystyrene or rigifoam lunch boxes came into effect on 1 September 2017 after the Central Environment Authority (CEA) Chairman Prof. Lal Dharmasiri informed President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the serious problems caused to the environment by the use of polythene.

Polythene everywhere

"The President who is also the Minister for Environment and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe asked us to find a solution to control the polythene and plastic menace. The Universities of Sri Jayewardenepura and Kelaniya conducted a research on polythene usage in the country. The research revealed that 6.7 kilos of polythene is used by a single person every day. Polythene and plastic are spreading rapidly and polluting the environment. People were in the habit of just walking into a shop and buying something and taking it away in a bag made out of polythene because they had easy access to polythene shopping bags," Prof Dharmasiri explained.

He added that lunch sheets were also used by the public because they were readily available in the market and because they were cheap. "The use of polythene became a problem in the country because it was not disposed of properly. Polythene and plastic don't degrade and as a result, the environment started getting polluted.

Polythene was dumped by the side of the road and in drains. When people went on trips they ate their food and threw the lunch sheets into nearby forests. When polythene is disposed of in an irresponsible manner, it gets stuck in drains. I have seen pieces of polythene stuck on top of trees after been blown away by the wind. When polythene is thrown into the forests and into garbage dumps, wild animals feed on it. Many animals have died after eating polythene from garbage dumps near forests," Prof Dharmasiri said.

He went on to say that people are also affected by the irresponsible disposal of polythene and that when it gets thrown on roads and in garbage dumps, it can collect water.

"Stagnant water is a good breeding ground for the dengue mosquito and so many people have already died from dengue. A decision was then taken by CEA with the approval of the President to ban the use of lunch sheets, grocery bags, shopping bags and polystyrene or rigifoam lunch boxes from the market. Polythene manufactured under 20 microns is not degradable and causes serious damage to the environment. When polythene is produced with less than 20 microns calcium carbonate is added. The overuse and continued use of calcium carbonate in polythene is not good for our health and the environment. Vendors want to make maximum profits so they sell polythene that is non-degradable. Polythene used for decor and other functions such as weddings, political rallies and religious events are also banned.

The CEA will tell all politicians not to use polythene for decorations during political campaigns, because most often the polythene used for the decor is just left behind after the rallies and pollutes the environment. Some politicians are already adhering to the polythene ban and not using polythene for their political campaigns," Prof Dharmasiri explained.

Changing attitudes

He added that there is only one company in Sri Lanka that produces rigifoam lunch boxes and this company produces 75, 000 of them per day. "Even though this rigifoam box is banned from the local market, the company can produce this product and sell it overseas.

As an option for rigifoam lunch boxes, a cardboard box can be used instead. Cardboard boxes are very cheap and can be recycled easily. Some people are asking us why we are not banning the yoghurt cup. It is not practical to ban all types of polythene from the market at once. Burning polythene in public is also banned because the fumes that spread from the burning polythene can cause cancers and breathing problems for people. However, some people still continue to burn polythene in public. High Density Polythene (HDP) is banned in the country while Low Density Polythene (LDP) can be produced and used. HDP can be produced in a thin form which is why people prefer to buy that product over the LDP," Prof Dharmasiri said.

He explained that there is only a small difference between the prices of the degradable polythene and the bio-degradable polythene. "But some people are complaining about the price difference in the degradable and bio degradable polythene. When the Government increases the prices of cigarettes and liquor, people don't complain. After the polythene ban in September 2017 we didn't start raiding places to check if polythene manufacturers are still producing non-degradable polythene because we wanted to first create awareness among people of the harmful effects of using this type of polythene. CEA has informed the Police, Government institutions, religious places and universities about the ban and the importance of co-operating with the Government to stop using polythene that is harmful to the environment," he said.

Going green

Polythene and plastic can be recycled. However a proper plan has to be in place to collect polythene and plastic bottles that need to be disposed from houses and offices.

Polythene manufacturers who want to convert their polythene manufacturing machines from HDP to LDP will be given some concessions by the Government. The public has to co-operate and start using these environmentally-friendly products. They have to put in a small effort to use bio degradable polythene products. But, the co-operation of the public will have a big impact on the country. CEA is planning to introduce an Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) where the producers of polythene have to take responsibility for the polythene that they produce and dispose of it in a responsible manner.

"We cannot say when we can completely stop the usage of banned polythene products. However, we are working on minimising the usage of polythene in the local market." Prof. Dharmasiri concluded.

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