“Only a blanket ban will work, making exceptions will make it impossible to enforce”
Three days after the government ban on plastic bags went into effect on New Year’s Day, it is still freely available in many mom and pop stores, butcher shops, and fruits and vegetable carts around the capital.
A customer at a meat shop in Bag Bazar said he knew about the ban but was unsure how to carry meat in a paper or cotton bag. “It is the shopkeeper’s responsibility to ensure the plastic he provides is of the set criteria,” he added.
Ravi Adhikari, a footpath vendor, says, “Adding the cost of cotton bags will make my products more expensive. Customers don’t make purchases if the price is high. So unless they bring their own bags or the government provides us with some, we have no option but to use plastic bags.”
Like everything else in this country, the law is meaningless because of the lack of enforcement. Public awareness about the environmental cost of the bags is lacking, and most shoppers are unwilling to forego the convenience.
This is not the first time there has been this ban. In 2013, the Kathmandu Metropolitan City was forced to withdraw its ban even before it completed its month-long awareness campaign after the Supreme Court passed a stay order filed by the Nepal Plastic Manufacturers’ Association (NPMA).
This time, however, things may be different. The NPMA once again demanded a stay order but to everyone’s surprise, a joint bench of Justices Sushila Karki and Gopal Parajuli rejected the petition citing public health concerns from plastic bags.
“This came as a boost to our campaign to ban plastic bags and not only reinforced our faith in government, but the judiciary as well,” said Palzom Pradhan of the Himalayan Climate Initiative (HCI), a youth-led environmental group working to ban plastic bags since 2013. HCI’s ‘No Thanks! I Carry My Own Bag’ campaign has provided awareness through organised public dance events and promotion of cloth bags.
“The ban is a perfect example of the collaborative effort of the government and the civil society,” said Pradhan.
It has been more than a decade since a government directive required all manufacturers of polythene bags to start phasing out its production. In 2002, the SC ordered the government to enforce the decision, but it was never implemented.
In 2011, the Ministry of Science Technology and Environment came up with Plastic Bags Control and Regulation Directive, which prohibits the import, storage, sale and use of plastic bags less than 20 microns (later amended to 30 microns) and imposed a fine of Rs 500 to 50,000 for manufacturing and using such bags. It was never put to practice.
This time, too, the government backtracked from its earlier decision to put a blanket ban on the use, production, distribution, and import of all types of plastic bags in Kathmandu Valley to state that only bags up to 51X89 cm and below 40 microns will be banned. With this loophole, some say the ban can easily be circumvented.
“The government should put a blanket ban on plastic bags altogether instead of citing numbers like 30 or 40 microns,” says urban planner P S Joshi. “Unless we build the capacity to fully implement the ban, we should not go into numbers. When you go into numbers, it gets harder to enforce.”
While the government has been pointing at jute and cloth bags as alternatives, the NPMA has been fighting a rearguard action to keep manufacturing and selling plastic bags. It says the ban is being implemented without proper research and long-term planning, considering how half-hearted the government is, the Association is probably right.
More than 300 tons of plastic bags are used all over Nepal every day. Most of them are used once and thrown on the side of the street or into a river. Street cattle are often found dead after ingesting the bags. The non-biodegradable bags stay in the environment for hundreds of years.
Dharan in eastern Nepal announced a ban on plastic bags in 2013 but it has been only partially successful. Sunil Nepal of Dharan Municipality says the amount of plastic in the garbage has decreased, but plastic bags are still in use.
Basu Dev Baral, a tourism entrepreneur in Dharan says: “Although the drive looked promising in the beginning after an exception was made for butchers, other traders simply followed suit and started using plastic bags again.”
This may be a lesson for Kathmandu: ban the bags completely, don’t make exceptions and provide alternatives.
Photo: Gopen Rai
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