The science and technology minister in the last government made a valiant attempt to ban plastic bags below 20 microns thick because of their toxicity, and the fact that they can't be reused. At a press conference he announced that the campaign would be launched from Singha Darbar itself and declared the seat of government "plastic free".
The ban did not even last a few days. This week, there were garbage piles even inside Singha Darbar: mostly made up of plastic. Kathmandu's recent history is littered with similar stories of empty slogans and failed campaigns. When archaeologists dig through what used to be Kathmandu Valley 10,000 years from now, they will probably discover a thick layer of plastic that they will guess choked the civilisation into extinction.
The Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC), which seems totally overwhelmed by the sheer extent of Kathmandu's waste problem, says 10 per cent of the garbage is plastic bags. Reducing the use of plastic wraps would remove a large part of the non-biodegradable content of the city's waste, and make it easier to compost the rest.
It has been ten years since a government directive required all manufacturers to start phasing out the production of plastic bags. In 2002, the Supreme Court ordered the government to enforce the decision. It was never heeded. Now, the Ministry of Environment has promulgated the Plastic Bags Regulation and Control Directive 2011 that prescribes slapping fines ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 50,000 against those still manufacturing and using bags thinner than 20 microns.
"It has been an uphill battle enforcing that law," admits Sanu Maiya Maharjan of KMC. "Some shopkeepers have started using paper and cloth bags and we have talked to manufacturers. KMC is committed to make Kathmandu valley plastic-free in the next two years."
That could be easier said than done unless plastic production itself is curbed since there are numerous unlicensed plastic bag producers. "Unless a cheaper and more convenient alternative is found people will continue using polythene bags," argues Kul Bahadur Shahi of Aastha Scientific Research Service, a firm that conducts quality tests on drinking water, waste water and soil.
Leading department stores have tried to wean shoppers away from plastic, but without much success. Namaste Supermarket in Pulchok conducted a 'No Plastic Bag' campaign in 2008 but the bags reappeared. Bhatbhateni Supermarket's 2009 campaign failed to make any impact. "Fabric bags are available but customers don't even bother to ask for them," explains Durga Gurung, a sales attendant at Bhatbhateni.
While Kathmandu gropes for an answer, other parts of Nepal have successfully implemented plastic bans. Ilam municipality banned plastic bags a year ago, and it has worked. Both shopkeepers and shoppers are slapped fines of up to Rs 500 if found using them.
Pravesh Chapagain, of the Namsaling Community Development Center in Ilam says the main factors in making plastic bans work are strong awareness and commitment of all stakeholders. "We have shown it can be done," he maintains, "it just needs everyone to work together." Keenly watching Ilam's success are the municipalities of Pokhara, Itahari, Bandipur and Dharan. And if that happens, it will put Kathmandu to shame.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Tired of waiting for the government and the municipality to get its act together to manage the city's wastes, communities in the Valley and inner city neighbourhoods have got together to set up exemplary garbage collections and recycling systems.
One of the oldest and most effective was organised by a group of enthusiastic housewives in Kopundole in 1992. The Women Environment Preservation Committee (WEPCO) began working with just 50 houses and now covers nearly 1500 households in Patan. WEPCO's 3R motto is "Reduce, Reuse and Recycle".For a monthly fee ranging from Rs 50 to Rs 150 WEPCO collectors in cargo trishaws do the rounds every morning and they have even educated households to separate biodegradable and other trash.
The biodegradables are turned into compost, which is sold and the proceeds help run the collection system. WEPCO also recycles paper and other materials to produce export-quality handicrafts. WEPCO has trained women's groups in implementing similar programs in other neighbourhoods in the Valley. "We believe in handing over the responsibilities to the people of the community as it is the only way to ensure the program's effectiveness", says Bishnu Thakali, chairperson of WEPCO.
If only Kathmandu Municipality could scale up on what Kopundole has shown can be done.