Published in Pakistan Observer, 13 October 2019.

Sindh government has been vying for a year to achieve phased withdrawal of plastic bags, without success. On October first 2019, it announced serious enforcement of the ban on plastic under section 144 of the code of criminal procedure of Pakistan, entailing stricter punishment and monetary fine. Traders in Sindh province’s (and Pakistan’s) mega city, Karachi, have already announced non-cooperation, saying sudden abandonment of plastic with no better substitute would harm their business.

Co-incidentally, yesterday evening, (October first) I witnessed a woman stepping out of a car parked on a busy roadside in Islamabad. She suddenly jumped onto the road, seemingly oblivious to moving vehicles and hastily picked something up from the road. The tyres of a moving vehicle screeched right behind her but fortunately, the driver was able to steer clear of the woman and continue on a one way road.
I later found that one of the lady’s paper bags carrying tomatoes had burst open. Tomatoes fell on the road and she tried to pick them fast before they were crushed by a car.

I was stunned and couldn’t help telling the lady that she risked her life to save her tomatoes. She said when tomatoes suddenly fell through the paper bag, all she could think was carrying grocery home in time for dinner as her family was hungry. In hindsight, she realized how dangerous her action was for her life.

Had the lady been run over by a fast moving vehicle, we would have witnessed first human death by ban on plastic in Islamabad.

Paper bags are not a good substitute for plastic bags in terms of utility. They are not good for environment either because the manufacturing of paper bags is more resource intensive than plastic bags, requires four times more energy, generates seventy percent more air pollution and fifty times more water pollution than plastic. On top of that, paper bags generate many more tonnage of sold waste for municipalities to manage and paper bag landfills generate greater number of environmental contaminants such as bisphenol A, phthalates, phenols, mineral oils, polychlorinated biphenyls, and toxic metals. Some of these chemicals are in plastics as well.

Paper recycling requires industrial infrastructure and involves extensive transportation, itself an environment pollutant. When paper is recycled, dies and inks from paper are removed using chemicals that cause water contamination and air pollution. Paper has limited recycling capacity, only six to seven times before it can’t be recycled any more. Egg cartons made of cardboard is the last use of recycled paper, after which it can no longer be recycled. This means the solid waste from used cartons heads for landfills.

Pakistan neither has paper recycling programs nor industrial infrastructure for large scale recycling. The cost of instituting it is enormous. Paper bags that have carried groceries cannot be recycled because paper with food particles, or paper that is wet or damp, is no good for recycling. Even our paper mache making cottage industry cannot utilize paper recycled from grocery bags due to this. Scientists have observed that paper bags cause fourteen percent more eutrophication of water bodies compared to plastic. Four times more water is used in making paper bags, not to mention increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Bags made of cotton are much better for Pakistan’s environment and for our national economy. Large scale manufacturing of cotton bags will provide stimulus to our textile manufacturing and retail industry, cottage industry, and will re absorb the hundreds of thousands of workers who are faced with job extinction due to government imposed ban on the manufacture of plastic bags.

A cotton bag would have to be reused approximately two hundred times more to emit a level of global warming potential that is emitted through reusing of plastic bag just once. Cloth bags can be reused for years. Cotton is the least polluting material as it decomposes organically at the end of its life. For cotton bags to be hygienic while in use, they just have to be kept clean and dry.

There are endless socio-economic benefits in using cotton cloth bags as the substitute for both plastic and paper bags. Producing millions of cotton cloth bags per day will create employment, stimulate textile and garment manufacturing sector, provide household and rural populations, especially that of women, opportunity to save and earn at the same time. Cloth bags can be re-utilized as cushions, pillow covers, even larger size bedding. The poor can use them to make clothing, especially children’s clothing and blankets. Rural women can use the cloth bags to create embroidered cushion covers, bed covers and ladies bags, thereby creating cottage industry that employs and empowers rural and urban women and reduces gender based poverty. There are endless benefits to the multiplier effect of manufacturing cotton cloth bags in Pakistan, but it is the government that has to take the initiative in making this possible.

Government must commission manufacturing of fabric suitable for bags to carry different goods. It must rate and certify each kind of fabric for distinct use, heavier, medium, soft (as shopping bag for apparel, for instance). The textile industry must be mandated to produce proper amount of material for end use utility through suitable subsidy, as starters. The manufacturing sector must be mandated to manufacture required amount of cloth bags. Recycling of cloth bags for both industrial purposes and for household utility should be taught in educational institutions and can be popularized through media. There is an endless array of utility end users can use cloth bags for.

The more cloth bags are produced, the more stimulus will be provided to the textile industry of Pakistan, the garment manufacturing sector in Pakistan, and the cotton growing farmers, not to mention the economic opportunities in savings and earnings that reuse of cloth bags bring to the citizens. The socio-economic and ecological benefits of bags made from fabric are endless. Government needs to pay attention to large scale supply of bags made from cotton, simultaneously as it outlaws plastic bags.

Author: Zeenia Satti

Zeenia Satti lives in Islamabad, Pakistan, where she works as Executive Director at Pakistan's People Led Disaster Management. She is also a political analyst and columnist. She has studied Middle Eastern Affairs at Harvard University, USA. Follow her on twitter@zssatti.