Carrier bag spat erupts as Islamabad moves to ban plastic

When inspectors showed up to investigate reports that a popular Islamabad take-out restaurant was flaunting the city’s new plastic bag ban this week, the response was less than contrite.

Person carrying a plastic bag

Person carrying a plastic bag. / Reference image / Pixabay

Reuters | Rina Saeed Khan

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Leer en español: Pakistán continúa luchando contra el uso de bolsas de plástico

Video footage – which quickly appeared on social media – showed one of the inspectors being grabbed and shoved.

Islamabad’s district commissioner ordered the culprits identified and arrested, and the restaurant was sealed overnight.

“We had received complaints that this large restaurant in the Blue Area was continuing to use plastic bags for every item they sell," said Farzana Altaf Shah, director-general of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency.

"They are a major contributor to plastic bag waste in Islamabad," she said.

But when inspectors arrived to confiscate the restaurant's plastic carry bags, "the head of the local traders association showed up with other members and they started behaving violently", Altaf Shah said.

The restaurant has since reopened, after the owner apologized, saying delivery of the needed new biodegradable bags had been delayed by a holiday period.

But the incident suggests that growing efforts in Pakistan - and globally - to reduce plastic waste may not go as smoothly as hoped.

Around the world, a surge of plastic bag bans have been met, at times, with equally enthusiastic efforts to get around them.

Kenya, for instance, which banned plastic carrier bags in 2017, has struggled to stop the smuggling of the bags over the border from Tanzania and Uganda, which do not have the same restrictions in place.

In other places, frustration with the bans - sometimes because good, low-cost green alternatives are difficult to find - has led to everything from faked green compliance certificates to fake biodegradable bags.

In Islamabad, the local government banned the manufacture, sale, and distribution of plastic carrier bags last week, on the country's independence day, as part of Prime Minister Imran Khan's "Clean, Green Pakistan" campaign.

Authorities have said they intend to expand the ban to other types of plastic bags used in packaging and have asked bag manufacturers to come up with recycling plans for plastic waste.

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Bag threats

The new ban follows a three-month-long campaign to raise awareness about the environmental hazards of plastic bags, which can kill wildlife, block drainage systems, collect in waterways and cause other environmental and health problems.

Altaf Shah, of Pakistan's EPA, said Islamabad's ban had for the most part been well accepted.

“Other than this unfortunate incident our campaign to ban plastic bags was going well. The managers of most of the shopping malls we visited were cooperative and appreciative of our efforts,” she said.

Wasim Khan, the manager of another popular eatery near the temporarily shuttered restaurant, said his business had long used mainly paper bags to sell their bread and sandwiches.

“Since we opened in 2017 we have opted for paper bags and the 5% plastic bags we used we have now discarded,” he said.

“It is more expensive for us, as we use strong paper bags, but this ban is good for the environment and our health."

According to Pakistan's Minister of State for Climate Change, Zartaj Gul, who is spearheading a broader countrywide anti-plastic campaign, the ban is focused on changing both attitudes and behaviors.

"We can survive without plastic bags," she said, noting that even many political opposition leaders were on board with the campaign.

Bags jamming Karachi's storm drains contributed to recent flooding in that city during heavy monsoon rains, she said.

Karachi is due to ban the bags in October, with restrictions already in place in parts of the Gilgit-Baltistan region and Khyber Pakhtunkwa province, and restrictions planned in Balochistan.

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Meanwhile, Mohammed Naeem, the owner of the temporarily sealed restaurant in Islamabad - a popular chain with five branches - has apologized for "misconduct by some staff members" - though he noted the incident had kicked off when inspectors began barring customers from entering the busy restaurant.

He said he was not opposed to the ban, and just needed more time to get alternative bags in place.

“Due to the week-long holidays we could not purchase alternative bags in time as factories had shut down," he said. "We had in fact sent a van to pick up the biodegradable bags the ministry had approved ... and it was on its way back from Gujarat when this incident occurred.”

The confrontation, which resulted in the restaurant being fined, has spurred some Islamabad shopkeepers to quickly remove plastic bags from their shops, most switching to paper bags.

"We didn't know the government would seriously implement the ban," one told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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