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How bad is Pakistan's plastic bag problem? See for yourself

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Boys play next to a riverbed filled with trash in Saidpur, a village near Islamabad, Pakistan.
Boys play next to a riverbed filled with trash in Saidpur, a village near Islamabad, Pakistan.
Diaa Hadid/NPR

Boys played amid stinky puddles and dodged trash sludge oozing from plastic bags carpeting a muddy riverbed in Saidpur, a village that connects to Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, by a narrow road. "God forgive us," says a woman watching nearby, referring to the trash.

Munira recalls the river stones glinting under fresh water when she was a child. Now, "there's so much trash," says the 65-year-old, who has only one name.

Trash is a part of Saidpur's landscape.
Trash is a part of Saidpur's landscape.
Diaa Hadid/NPR

Pakistan has long struggled with its copious plastic bag trash — the country consumes tens of billions of single-use bags a year. Estimates range from 55 billion to over 112 billion, and there's little waste management.

Over more than a decade, Pakistani provinces have repeatedly imposed bans on single-use plastic bags made out of polythene, but those bans have faltered. Residents haven't been able to access cheap alternatives, like compostable plastic bags, and police haven't been able to effectively enforce the bans.

The river that once snaked through the village is now a large trash heap.
The river that once snaked through the village is now a large trash heap.
Diaa Hadid/NPR

The coalition government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has been in power for the past year, hopes that this time will be different. In July, his administration announced a ban on disposable plastic bags in Islamabad and surrounding areas, including Saidpur. When the ban takes effect on Aug. 14, residents may be fined about $70 for being caught using a bag — nearly a month's wages for a laborer. Manufacturers will face larger fines for making plastic bags, as will shops for distributing them.

According to Hammad Shamimi, a senior official at the Ministry of Climate Change, "Polythene bags have been banned. There is a provision that for hospital waste, for municipal waste, big bags will be exempted," he says, "subject to the condition that they will submit a recycling plan to this ministry."

Much of Pakistan's garbage, including its single-use plastic bags, end up tossed into or washed up in the country's waterways, like this otherwise postcard-pretty canal in an upscale suburb of the capital, Islamabad.
Much of Pakistan's garbage, including its single-use plastic bags, end up tossed into or washed up in the country's waterways, like this otherwise postcard-pretty canal in an upscale suburb of the capital, Islamabad.
Diaa Hadid/NPR

Aug. 14 is Pakistan's independence day, and the ban will celebrate the beginning of Pakistan's independence from plastic, says Zartaj Gul Wazir, the minister of state for climate change.

Looming in the minds of environmentalists and officials is nearly a decade of failed attempts to ban single-use plastic bags. The provincial government of Sindh — home to Karachi, the country's largest city, with some 13 million people — first tried to ban bags in 2006. It largely failed. Then in 2009, the federal government tried to ban plastic bags that did not contain biodegradable materials. It failed.

The Sindh government tried again in 2014 to ban the bags — effectively copying the federal government's law, says Waris Ali Gabol, the deputy director of the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency. It also failed.

Plastic bags are a key problem, say residents, because they clog waterways.
Plastic bags are a key problem, say residents, because they clog waterways.
Diaa Hadid/NPR

Gabol says that during the last ban, shopkeepers in Sindh often presented to police inspectors bags that were stamped with information saying they were biodegradable. But the police did not have a budget to check out those claims in a lab. More broadly, residents from across Sindh say they were not even aware that a ban was in place, suggesting that the government didn't effectively publicize the prohibition on bags, create awareness of the harms of plastic or even encourage police to fine violators.

The climate minister, Wazir, says that this new ban will be more likely to succeed because it has the full backing of the prime minister, Khan, who has thrown himself behind environmental projects in the past. Khan's political party, for example, was part of a provincial government that planted over 700 million trees for the three years ending in 2017, earning praise from the Pakistani branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature. "The government is pushing an environmental agenda, and they're prioritizing the environment, which is good," says Hassaan Sipra, a scientific officer at the Centre for Climate Research and Development at COMSATS University in Islamabad. "But the problem with Pakistan has always been that while we have the legislation, we don't have the political will to enforce it."

Wazir and other staffers described the new ban as a pilot project. If it works, they hope to use the legislation and acquired experience to replicate the ban in all four of Pakistan's provinces.

To prepare, notices have been published in newspapers and on social media. The ministry's Twitter account posted an image of a trash fire near an iconic building in Islamabad and emblazoned the image with "No More Plastic Bags!" The image refers to what often happens to trash when it isn't collected — residents burn it.

Cows munch on trash-filled plastic bags tossed near a dumpster on the outskirts of Saidpur.
Cows munch on trash-filled plastic bags tossed near a dumpster on the outskirts of Saidpur.
Diaa Hadid/NPR

The ministry will distribute to government employees tens of thousands of cotton, jute and thick reusable plastic bags emblazoned in Urdu with "Get rid of plastic, go for a greener environment."

A recent July day in Saidpur suggested the challenges Pakistan faces. The village is tacked onto Islamabad by a narrow road. On the outskirts, cows munched on trash-filled plastic bags tossed near a dumpster. Inside the village, past a cluster of upscale restaurants patronized by wealthy Islamabad residents, goats and chickens pecked through trash among boys playing cricket. The bags are a key problem because they physically clog waterways.

Sanitation is a huge issue across Pakistan, where garbage collection is spotty and often focused on wealthy areas. Residents in poorer neighborhoods are left to grapple with trash on their own. In Saidpur, for instance, residents said authorities often promised to dispatch garbage collectors, but they didn't come very often. So residents toss the trash in the dry riverbed. Scavengers take plastic bottles and cardboard, both of which can be recycled for money in Pakistan, but leave the rest. Residents say their children suffer from skin rashes, hepatitis and dengue fever, which they attribute to the trash problem.

This being the monsoon season, Munira, the 65-year-old woman, said residents waited for heavy rains to dislodge the bags, leaving a trail of detritus through canals linked to the Indus River basin, which runs down the length of Pakistan.

A worker operates a machine at a plastic bag factory on the outskirts of Islamabad.
A worker operates a machine at a plastic bag factory on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Diaa Hadid/NPR
News of a ban on single-use plastic bags has caused sales to slump at this plastic bag factory near Islamabad.
News of a ban on single-use plastic bags has caused sales to slump at this plastic bag factory near Islamabad.
Diaa Hadid/NPR

From there, the bags of trash wash into the Arabian Sea. It's unclear how much waste ends up in the ocean — but enough that according to a 2018 study of plastic pollution from rivers, the Indus was the second-largest contributor of plastic pollution that ends up in the world's oceans. (The largest contributor was the Yangtze River in China, outstripping the next nine rivers.)

Mohammad Zaheer holds up bags freshly stamped with supermarket slogans. He says he's worried about his future after the plastic bag ban begins. He says that if he has to find another job, "it will be difficult, because there is much unemployment."
Mohammad Zaheer holds up bags freshly stamped with supermarket slogans. He says he's worried about his future after the plastic bag ban begins. He says that if he has to find another job, "it will be difficult, because there is much unemployment."
Diaa Hadid/NPR

Already, the Aug. 14 ban has had an impact. At a plastic bag factory built between farmlands in rural Islamabad, news of the ban has caused a sales slump, said owner Iftikhar Ahmed Jamal. Only three of his 12 machines were working, stamping bags with slogans of surrounding supermarkets. To compensate, Jamal laid off about half of his 35 workers. Remaining workers said they were worried.

"If it's shut down, I'll have to find another job," said Mohammad Zaheer, a married 25-year-old who makes about $90 a month. "Of course it will be difficult, because there is much unemployment," he said, fluttering his fingers, bent askew from being crushed in a machine.

There's no plan to compensate workers or business owners in the industry, which employs tens of thousands across Pakistan — an issue that environmentalists have warned will affect future action on plastic waste.

Uncollected trash piles in the streets.
Uncollected trash piles in the streets.
Diaa Hadid/NPR

And Jamal argued that the ban is misguided. Pakistan doesn't have a plastic problem — it has a waste management and recycling problem, he says. Wazir, the climate minister, acknowledged this but said it is one reason that a ban is necessary.

Environmentalists say the ban already appears flawed.

Volunteers from 5 Mailay, a group that collects trash to raise environmental awareness, pick up garbage around a strip mall in Islamabad.
Volunteers from 5 Mailay, a group that collects trash to raise environmental awareness, pick up garbage around a strip mall in Islamabad.
Diaa Hadid/NPR

"You have to make people aware of the dangers of this single-use plastic and then implement a ban," says Malaika Riasat of 5 Mailay, a group that collects trash to raise environmental awareness around Islamabad. There hasn't been any effective advocacy on plastic's perils, Riasat says, and affordable alternatives like cotton bags for consumers aren't available. She says government officials should go door to door and through marketplaces to explain the new ban, distribute cloth bags to consumers and explain the dangers of plastic use. "If I want to go out and buy a cloth bag, are you providing cloth bags to different shops?" She gestured toward the working-class strip mall where she was collecting garbage on a recent Sunday — there were no alternatives to plastic bags anywhere in sight.

Volunteers throw bags of trash they've collected into a garbage dumpster.
Volunteers throw bags of trash they've collected into a garbage dumpster.
Diaa Hadid/NPR

And in a nearby market, hawkers and shoppers say they are flummoxed by what they are meant to do, even as most welcomed the ban. Most people said plastic bags had made their parts of Pakistan look ugly. Older residents said they'd dig out cloth bags they used before switching to plastic. But the sellers — what would they serve hot food and sandwiches in?

Tarek, 40, pointed at his chickpea curry, piled high on a platter on a wooden cart. He serves the dish to customers in plastic bags. He favored a ban but "there must be some alternative," he said. "You can't carry curry in a cloth bag."

He gestured to Styrofoam boxes piled up nearby and said maybe he'd use them instead.

He didn't seem to know that Styrofoam is harder to recycle than plastic. "Styrofoam is actually worse. Most waste recovery facilities don't recycle it," says Sipra of the Centre for Climate Research and Development.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.