When environment-friendly shopper bags aren't good for the environment at all

Oxo-biodegradable bags may appear to be a good alternative, but they only 'greenwash' the use of plastics
Updated Jul 17, 2019 03:56pm


"My factory was my entire world," says Malik (who insists his surname is also his first name), who was, till three weeks ago, successfully running a factory producing thousands of kilos of plastic bags ⁠— in common parlance termed "shopper bags" that are usually fit for single use ⁠— on Charsadda Road, in Peshawar.

"I am still reeling from the shock," he says over the phone from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's (KPK) capital city, referring to the raid after which the factory was sealed by the government some three weeks back. "Before they sealed the shop they also took away my stock of plastic bags worth nearly Rs 300,000," rued Malik.

More than the financial loss, Nasim Gul, president of the Plastic Manufacturing Association, KPK, is livid with the government's dealing with enforcement of a 2014 legislation that prohibits "manufacture", "stockpile" "trade", supply, "distribute" "sell", "use" of "non biodegradable plastic products".

"We are being treated as if we are selling drugs!" he said considering it an affront. Although less than two dozen factories have so far been sealed since the government crackdown that began in June, the climate of uncertainty and fear has resulted in many factory owners shutting their factories so that their product is not hauled and confiscated.


"Oxo-degradable plastic is neither a bioplastic nor a biodegradable plastic. It's conventional plastic mixed with an additive in order to imitate biodegredation. It may fragment into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics, but does not break down at the molecular or polymer level like biodegradable and compostable plastics. Thus they remain in the environment indefinitely. (Source: Greendotbioplastics)


Although bans have come and gone, this time the fear that the government is serious is palpable. "It could be my turn next, it's just a matter of time," said a worried Khurram Ilyas, another manufacturer based in Peshawar.

The ban in KPK is one of the strictest bans to come into effect in Pakistan as plastic bags have been banned before in other provinces in the past. Take for example, Punjab and Sindh. In Punjab there was a ban on the manufacture and sale of bags below 15 micron since 2002, where as in Sindh it was on plastic bags under 30 microns which was levied in 2006. Sadly, not just the cities, but the country's rural landscape is dotted with this eyesore and the bans have never been effective, not even for a day.

A KPK poster announcing the ban
A KPK poster announcing the ban

These discarded carrier bags are choking drains, hanging by poles and branches of trees and bushes and in water channels before finally making their way into the sea, creating tonnes of marine debris.

Hammad Shamimi, spokesperson of the Ministry of Climate Change (MoCC) says 55 billion shopping bags per year (or almost 300 per person/per year) are used in Pakistan. Shoaib Munshi, spokesperson of the Pakistan Plastic Manufacturers Association (PPMA) has an almost similar estimates at between 45 to 55 billion per year.

The problem with the KPK ban is that while the law prohibits the use of non-biodegradable plastic products, it does not specify the thickness. On top of this, knowing that complete elimination will never happen, the legislation in both the KPK and Sindh tried to make the transition environmentally suitable by allowing the manufacture of oxo-biodegradable plastic products.

Sindh's environmental protection act prohibits "import, manufacture, stockpile, trade, supply, distribute or sell any scheduled plastic product which is "non-degradable" and the "scheduled plastic products" that are to be used must be "oxo-biodegradable" and the "pro-degradant" which must be approved by the "Agency".

The KPK legislation has defined oxo-biodegradable plastic produce as something made of "polymer containing a pro-degradant additive" and can only be used by those companies that have been registered with the "Agency". It further explains the additive formulation to contain "metal salt except cobalt" which will cause the polymer to degrade by the process of oxy-biodegradation.

"The administration told us that only those plastics will be manufactured in future that are oxo-biodegradable," said Gul from KPK. For that, they will need to buy an imported additive. In addition, all plastic products need to be prominently marked "oxo-biodegradable. "We are willing to do it but we need time and it will also require money," he said.

Oxo-biodegradable bags 'greenwash' the pollution issue, they don't solve it

But not everything with the term "bio" or "degradable" is a green solution, warn researchers. And it is giving them sleepless nights.

"OBD (short for oxobiodegradable) is often referred to as 'maahol dost' bags. If you have increased thickness using OBD technology, you will be creating a bigger environmental problem than the one we are facing right now with the infamous shopper bags we all want so badly eliminated," says Dr Meher Nigar, who has a doctorate in polymer science and engineering and is currently teaching at the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Air University, Islamabad.

Terming it a scam, she warns: "Expect more litter and more blocked drains!"

She explains that the use of OBD will in fact promote littering as people will be under the erroneous impression that this type of plastic will disintegrate into the soil, water or air.

According to Nigar, with over 12 years' experience of studying and conducting research on plastic products, the chemical fragmentation of OBD is "dependent on oxygen and ultraviolet heat" and if one of the two is missing the technology will not work. "Thicker bag means more plastic and less oxygen penetration."

The biodegradation process itself is slow in cold weather, high humidity virtually puts a stop to it and thus in regions with long, wet winters, the process of biodegradation may not even happen.


Should Pakistan go the Kenyan route? Kenya effected its plastic ban on July 28, 2017, with offenders, risking imprisonment of up to four years, or a fine of between $19,417 and $38,834.


Even worse, said the Dr Kauser Ali Syed, heading the Department of Polymer and Petrochemical, this plastic "neither disintegrates nor can it be recycled".

Interesting findings of a study carried out on plastic products by the University of Plymouth, were made public earlier this year in April.

Five types of plastic bags -- biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable, compostable, and high-density polyethylene (i.e., a conventional plastic carrier bag) were exposed in three natural environments; open-air, buried in soil, and submersed in seawater, as well as in controlled laboratory conditions.

Dr. Meher Nigar, who has a doctorate in polymer science and engineering termed OBD a scam and warned: "Expect more litter and more blocked drains!"
Dr. Meher Nigar, who has a doctorate in polymer science and engineering termed OBD a scam and warned: "Expect more litter and more blocked drains!"

The compostable bag completely disappeared within three months In the sea, but the same bag type although deteriorated, was present in the soil environment after 27 months. After nine months of exposure in the open-air, all bag materials had fragmented. The study concluded that because none of the bags could be relied upon to show any substantial deterioration over a three-year period in all of the environments, it was unclear if the "oxo-biodegradable or biodegradable formulations provide sufficiently advanced rates of deterioration to be advantageous in the context of reducing marine litter, compared to conventional bags".

What's the alternative to this 'alternative plastic bag'?

Lahore-based Faisal Malik, a plastic manufacturer also produces OBD plastic, although the Punjab has not enforced any such law. Now he is in two minds. "I started doing it because I was told it's good for the environment; now the world is saying otherwise," he says, but adds, "it's still in demand because big brands still ask for it".

"Back in 2013, when the government started legislating to regulate use of plastic bags, OBD was considered good for the environment, and Sindh, Balochistan and KPK put it in their law," explained Hammad Shamimi, spokesperson for the ministry of climate change that is currently leading discussion on how to eliminate plastic bags from the lives of Pakistanis with stakeholders including academia, researchers and environmental organisations and those in the manufacturing and trading of plastic bags.

Source: International Union for Conversation of Nature
Source: International Union for Conversation of Nature

According to government insiders working closely on environment, a case against repeal of not only the OBD, but all polyethylene shopping bags has been put before the PM's cabinet. Once it is gets approved, it will immediately be effective.

The federal government has already announced a complete ban on stocking, selling and buying of plastic bags in Islamabad after August 14 this year. But the law will only be effective in Islamabad. "We are calling this year's Independence celebration as plastic se azadi!" he said, and added: "We are adopting the Kenyan model of complete elimination. Anyone manufacturing will be slapped with a fine of Rs 100,00 and anyone found using it will have to pay Rs 5,000," he added.


Microplastics are plastic pieces that are less than five millimeters long that pollute drinking water, oceans, lakes, ponds, etc. Typically made from polypropylene, polyethylene, terephthalate, or nylon-microplastics are most commonly found in health and beauty products. However, they can be introduced to the environment from a variety of other sources. Such as… larger plastics that break down, clothing-synthetic clothes release microfibers while being washed, resin pellets that are used for plastic manufacturing, microbeads- polyethylene beads found in soaps and toothpastes.


Kenya effected its plastic ban on July 28, 2017, with offenders, risking imprisonment of up to four years, or a fine of between $19,417 and $38,834.

"The law was effective because of availability of eco-friendly, reusable alternative packaging materials," said Shamimi. These include reusable packing made from jute, papyrus, gunny bags, starch and cassava. But Kenyans did feel the pinch initially. In the first month of the ban, manufacturers from Rwanda (which imposed a ban way back in 2004 and a complete one in 2008), exported 78 tonnes of biodegradable bags made from paper, clothes and sisal worth $250,000 to Kenya. Shamimi, though is not sure if Pakistan, or Islamabad can come up with quick, cost effective and innovative indigenous solutions.

Since Pakistan is going full throttle in enforcing the ban, it would do well to study the 10-step roadmap for governments that United Nations Environment Programme 2018 has drawn up in a paper with experiences of 60 countries around the world that introduced bans and regulations on single-use plastics to see what worked, what did not. But, one thing is clear, switching from throwaway plastic culture to "sustainable alternatives" was a future "investment" the report concluded.

Massive confusion among manufacturers, who want to 'manage' plastic bags instead of banning them

The blanket ban in one province has also created confusion in other parts of the country. Part of the confusion pertains to the thickness of the plastic.

"We, in Punjab, are suggesting that the plastic thickness should be up from 15 (currently) to 35 microns," said Malik from Punjab. He added the government was insisting it should be increased to 45 microns. "In addition, they want us to do away with the 8x11 inches and 10x13 inches size bags; put warning instructions in Urdu that 'this plastic bag and could be hazardous if used for food products and make sure to reuse it'," he said and added: "We've agreed to all the terms of the Punjab EPA, except one where they department demanded we use pure polymers."

Syed of NED said: "Manufacturing thicker plastics weighing a minimum of 60 microns as opposed to the 10-20 micron currently weighing flimsy single use plastic bags will help in reducing the consumption as the mindset of Pakistanis is of reuse. And because it will be expensive, they may not throw them away as easily."

"We are willing to produce up to 60 microns thickness," said PPMA's Munshi.

The federal government has already announced a complete ban on stocking, selling and buying of plastic bags in Islamabad after August 14 this year.
The federal government has already announced a complete ban on stocking, selling and buying of plastic bags in Islamabad after August 14 this year.

The plastic product -- in this case the shopper bag -- may not see geographical boundaries but with environment now a provincial subject after the passage of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, each province has come up with the kind of thickness it wants, whether they want to allow OBD or not and the penalties that come with it. So if a bag from Punjab with 45 microns perchance crosses into Sindh which decides to banish all which are less than 45microns, it becomes a culprit and punished.

Although Shamimi wished there was a uniform legislation on plastic (both on prohibition and the kind of plastic allowed with same penalties if the law is broken) the MoCC's hands are tied. "We can only "suggest" and "convince" but we cannot make changes in the provincial law; this is only possible if the legislators in each province decide they want a uniform law."


Manufacturers say there is a way out to live with plastic. Manage the plastic waste, they say. Their mantra is to reduce, reuse and recycle.


Although the KPK ban is only on non-biodegradable single-use plastic, a wave of fear has spread and unnerved manufacturers and traders in other provinces too.

According to the PPMA there are nearly 15,000 big and small factories employing 600,000 people. But indirectly, Malik of the PPMA, estimates six million people would be involved in import of plastic raw material, manufacture, trading and then recycling. "It's a chain which involves transporters, textile industry, packaging industry, recyclers, in fact, just about everyone you can think of. You take plastic out and the entire economy will collapse, thousands of people will lose their livelihood," he said.

"We all know plastic is bad but we also know we cannot do away with it. We need to have a strategy whereby we need to reduce it and use it more responsibly till we can come up with as versatile and as cheap a material as plastic but which is environmentally friendly," he added.

But it is not easy to eliminate a material that is so deeply entrenched in our lifestyle and also our economy.

In his home town of Peshawar, said Adeel Saeed, a journalist working with Associated Press of Pakistan, the OBD bags have now flooded the market and few know the consequences. "Plastic bag dealers are selling new bags to avoid action from district administration," he told Dawn.com.

He himself bought the "environmentally friendly" big garbage bag for Rs 10 to replace with the non degradable single use bag which cost him Rs 5. He said the crackdown was restricted to plastic manufacturing units and dealers as "hand cart owner, shopkeepers, milk sellers, bread, bakers are still using old bags".

But the manufacturers say there is a way out to live with plastic. Manage the plastic waste, they say. Their mantra is to reduce, reuse and recycle.

PPMA's Munshi, who is also a member of the association's environment committee, has a suggestion. "We have asked the government that if they are able to organize collection of all the plastic bags -- big and small -- from the streets and garbage collection stations we are willing to buy the entire waste from them," he said.

The recyclers are already playing an important part. "If we were not picking up plastic from the doorstep of the automobile industrial units, pharmaceuticals, textiles PET bottlers etc, Karachi, today, would be a huge garbage dump!"said Shiraz Chawla, who runs a recycling unit in Karachi's Shershah where he breaks plastic into dana (granules) to be reused again.

Along with picking up the waste generated within the country, the PPMA wants the government to impose a ban on import of waste plastic. "If we want to clean up our country, why are we then willing to become the dumping ground for the developed countries?" asked Munshi, saying the government's action on the ground to eliminate plastic is in complete paradox to the absurd policy of allowing import of plastic waste.

Endorsing Munshi, Chawla said there was enough waste locally for them to sort and do business. But more importantly, he said, a ban on import of Iranian shopping bags would greatly help in eliminating single use plastic from the country.

This man has opened his shop in Peshawar because he's now complying with the decision and selling oxobiodegradable bags
This man has opened his shop in Peshawar because he's now complying with the decision and selling oxobiodegradable bags

"It will really give a boost to not only the local plastic recycling business, but will eliminate the thin shopper bags that are being imported from Iran ," he pointed out. Conservatively speaking, he estimated nearly 20 containers (carrying 25,000 kg) of plastic bags (made of less than 12 microns) reach the Karachi port every month and sold at Rs 160/kg which was already a death blow for the locally produced bags of the same weight which were being sold at Rs235/kg.

While hundreds of jobs may be lost now when factories manufacturing plastic bags will be shut down across the country if the ban is seriously enforced, experiences from other countries show people have come up with alternatives as they will do in Pakistan too and come up with packaging material that is not damaging for the environment, and will once again be in the game.


Composite By Leea Contractor