Subh-e-Nau Magazine

Are Bioplastics a Solution?   

Plastics are ubiquitous in every area of our lives from healthcare to homewares and from food to fashion. Plastic is a staple material of modern life but has many negative impacts as well. Bioplastics offer a solution, but there are key considerations in their usage as well.       

The invention of plastics in the early 20th century promised to change the world. It did and then some. The pliable, convenient material’s near-exponential growth has enabled modern life, but its lack of designed-in end-of-life considerations has created a global waste crisis.
Plastic is made up of long chain organic polymers of vinyl chloride, propylene, styrene, ethylene etc. It is malleable, ductile and tensile in nature, hence used in the manufacture of carry bags, bottles, pipes, gears, packaging material and the list goes on.  On the downside most of the conventionally used plastic wares are non-biodegradable in nature i.e. they cannot be broken down naturally by the soil inhabiting microbes. Due to this reason, the used and discarded plastic items get accumulated on the earth’s crust, damaging the lithosphere.
NGOs, governments of various countries all over the world are participating in United Nations Environment Programme’s Beat Plastic Pollution campaign.  As per survey, each year around 200 million tons of plastic are consumed on the planet.

POLYMER

Polymers are chemical compounds that consist of long repeating chains of molecules.  Some naturally occurring polymers include: wood, cotton, silk, and leather. Synthetic polymers are known as plastics. The chemistry and technology that enabled humans to create synthetic polymers were fine tuned in the early twentieth century. Today, plastics are everywhere.
Plastics are in toys, computers, clothing, sports equipment, carpet, appliances, automobiles, building materials, fashion accessories, dishes, and much much more. Plastics play an increasingly large role in medicine, electronics, aerospace, and advanced structural composites. Because of our ever-improving understanding of how to manipulate plastic to meet our needs across nearly every industry all over the globe, it is no wonder our dependence on it increases every year.

WHY IS PLASTIC PROBLEMATIC?

Majority of plastic is synthetic and is obtained from crude, which has multiple (negative) implications such as:
  • Faster depleting oil reserves.
  • Growing oil prices.
  • They are non-biodegradable, hence causes all sorts of pollution.
  • They are non-edible, etc.
Many plastics are made from liquid petroleum gas or natural gas. These resources are not renewable, so when we run out, we cannot make more of the resource or the plastic. In addition, extracting such fuels can be quite harmful to our oceans and atmosphere. Every year, tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil are spilled into the ocean, toxic emissions are spewed into the air, natural habitats are disrupted or destroyed, and international politics become a little more tense.
Even with the best waste management systems, it is realistic to assume some plastic will always escape. Think of the abrasion from car or bike tires, from ship paints, sneakers, or synthetic garments. If bits of plastics are small enough to travel through the air, they will be hard to ever contain.
Statistics show that plastics are currently the third most commonly used byproducts from the oil and gas industry and the global consumption rate of plastics has crossed 200 million tons per year. Several countries are banning the use of conventional plastic bags. Massive deposits of plastics in the ocean are responsible for the large-scale death of marine and aerial species due to either ingestion or by getting stuck in them.
The accumulated plastic is a threat to the ecological balance and environmental health of the humans, animals, birds and aquatic life. The severity of the issue could be estimated from the continuous decline in the marine biodiversity of the North Pacific Ocean, which has been reported in the recent years due to the presence of a floating plastic garbage patch.
Conventional plastics are manufactured from chemicals in fossil fuels during a process that is both energy-intense and a major source of green-house gas emissions. Given the increasing concern about climate change, there is growing pressure to move away from these ‘oil-based’ plastics and from the above-mentioned negative effects caused by plastic we urgently need a new materials revolution because the unique selling point of plastics, its sheer durability and near indestructible nature.

TYPES OF PLASTICS

Environment friendly plastics fall into three types:
  • Bioplastics made from natural materials such as corn starch.
  • Biodegradable plastics made from traditional petrochemicals, which are engineered to break down more quickly.
  • Eco/recycled plastics, which are simply plastics made from recycled plastic materials rather than raw petrochemicals.
We can and do produce biodegradable plastics, but they have limited applications. Globally, only 14% of plastic packaging is thought to be collected for recycling with the rest being incinerated, landfilled or entering the environment.
Suddenly we have woken up to the scale at which plastic waste is penetrating our oceans, our soils and even our bodies. Challenges such as these, however, are catalysts for innovation and the search is on for alternative materials that match plastic in performance without burdening the environment.
Alongside consumer-centric solutions, there is also a growing need for designing new materials that can replace the plastic we cannot recycle. The new materials need to have all the positive aspects of plastic durable, lightweight, cheap and replace all the negative ones made from fossil fuels, non-recyclable, and non-biodegradable.
In an increasingly sustainability-aware society, plastics have become a major concern due to the problems coming from an incorrect handling of these materials after its end-of-life, that converts them in an important source of marine and soil pollution. Due to the big volumes of plastic waste being generated daily all over the world, plastic waste management becomes a key piece in the puzzle of circular economy.
Luckily for us, innovators from all over the world have been trying to replace/reinvent plastic for a while now, and it is exciting to see the innovations coming up that are simple and promising at the same time. There are three main objectives in creating a more sustainable, environmentally friendly plastic, better sourcing, better performance during its lifetime, and better end-of-life options.
Hence comes the bio plastics as a saviour/alternative, which checks off all those boxes. It is one of the hottest topics in the materials world against the conventional synthetic plastics. It has been in the spotlight for some years as potential replacement of traditional plastics in many applications.
Traditionally plastic is made from oil. When oil or plastic is burned, the greenhouse gas Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is released, and those emissions are responsible for global warming. Bioplastics can be made almost CO2-neutral. A plant takes up CO2 from the atmosphere. The plant is harvested, and the carbon stored in the plant is used to create bioplastic. When this bioplastic is burned, the carbon is released back to the atmosphere as CO2. The only extra emissions   required come from the bioplastic manufacturing process, not from the materials.

HOW ARE BIO-PLASTIC MADE?

Scientists have been experimenting with the concept of “Bioplastic” for the past two decades.
Biopolymers of polyhydroxybutarate, Polylactide, poly-caprolactone, polybutylene succinate and hyaluronic acid have been identified as potential ingredients for the production of bioplastic-based products for the large-scale applications. These biopolymers may be botanical or microbial in origin. However, the microbial biopolymers are easier to extract and process while manufacturing bioplastic for industrial use.
It is plant based and sustainably sourced, and more eco-friendly sources are discovered every year. It has several end-of-life options that create a closed loop cycle. For some time, traditional plastics have been joined by bioplastics, which are used to make shopping bags.
There are two categories of biodegradable plastic, and only one is made from plant materials (bioplastic). The other one is made from petrochemicals. Also, due to constant advancements in the field of bioplastics, its performance during its lifespan continues to improve allowing it to be used in greater capacities. Biodegradable plastics will not fully solve the plastic crisis, so tackling consumption remains key. By just reducing the amounts and the types of different packaging that we have in our supermarkets, we can do a lot, without developing novel materials.
There are many kinds of bioplastics; synthetic and regenerated from natural polymers. Each of these biopolymers is produced through a specific process. Even for each one, there can be various kinds of feeding raw materials and catalysts and manufacturing technology. The biopolymers class cannot be limited to the present ones, as new polymers and materials are under investigation, commercialisation and marketing. 

GENERATIONS OF BIO PLASTICS

First generation biodegradable plastics are made from petroleum. Since the biggest part of CO2 emission is from production the gain is not so high. (Very first generation did not degrade so well, letting micro-plastics in the soils. Second generation is made from agricultural products. It greatly reduces CO2 emission while adding some local impacts of agriculture. Some bioplastics are made from castor oil, a plant that grow easily everywhere so that is better. Third generation would be made of algae, reducing greatly the environmental impact again.

ARE BIOPLASTICS SUSTAINABLE?

For bio-based plastics there is the challenge of price. Of all the tons of plastic produced annually, a large part is for industrial, disposable or mass-produced applications.  By plastic recycling biotech enzymes, enzymatic bio-recycling of plastic waste is made possible, which can be reused to make new plastic without loss of quality. During the process, the enzymes break down polymers into smaller components that can then be reused to make plastic again. Enzymatic recycling produces high-quality plastic.  These enzymes can also be incorporated in certain plastics, such as a biodegradable plastic bag, to allow them to break down within a specific amount of time or use.
Bio plastics has developed a whole range of biodegradable polymers for use in medical devices and for sustained drug release implants. There are also other niche applications where bio-based plastics are being used, such as packaging for cosmetics.
However, some bio-based plastics may not be a sustainable solution. Competition with food resources is a problem. Access to raw materials can also be tricky for the bioplastics industry. But biotechs are working on a bio refinery concept. The idea is to develop microbial strains that can ‘eat’ green waste (like wood residues), which is cheap and widely available. From the waste, the bio refinery would produce key chemicals that are later used for a wide range of applications including plastics. Some microbes naturally produce polymers that we can use as plastics. PHAs, for example, are produced by several microorganisms and can be used in food packaging and other disposable items like diapers. No matter what kind of plastic you choose to use, it should be recycled or disposed off properly.
IMPORTANCE OF COMPOSTING
Composting is the natural destination of compostable plastics. Through composting, compostable plastics are fully embedded in the transformation process which affects and gives value also to organic waste, partly degrading them into carbon dioxide and water vapour and partly turning them into a soil improver.
Biodegradable (and compostable) products are not necessarily more environmentally friendly when disposed of in landfills. Biodegradable materials, such as disposable cups and utensils, are broken down in landfills by microorganisms (similarly to composting, but in an anaerobic environment, i.e. in the absence of oxygen) which then produce methane. Methane can be a valuable energy source when captured, as in an anaerobic digestion site, but is a potent greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere, which happens for a relevant part of methane from dumpsites and even from controlled landfills.
Biodegradable (and compostable) plastics typically cannot be recycled with conventional plastic items. For example, if a compostable plastic is mixed in and melted with traditional plastics such as PET or HDPE, it would contaminate the entire load because the chemical makeup of biodegradable bags is so different, further, degradation may harm mechanical properties of recycled plastics.

EFFECTS OF BIO PLASTIC ON HUMANS

When considering the impacts of plastic products on humans and the environment, looking at just the plastic itself is never enough. A single plastic product can contain dozens of chemicals, some of which might have adverse effects on us humans or other organisms if they are released into the environment and taken up.
A Ph.D. student in the Department Aquatic Ecotoxicology at Goethe University, has conducted research that suggests that chemical mixtures present in biodegradable or bio-based plastic products can influence the metabolic activity of the bioluminescent bacterium Aliivibrio fischeri and these chemical mixtures can have the potential to cause oxidative stress or influence the hormonal system in living organisms. Thus, Bioplastics are not necessarily safer than conventional plastics about the toxicity of the chemical mixtures they include.

FUTURE OF BIOPLASTIC

Bioplastics currently represent a share of about 1 percent of the entire plastics market but that is expected to grow significantly in the coming years due to consumer demand and companies’ growing sustainability efforts. Improving organic composting systems is one solution, as is increasing the commercialisation of bioplastics and raising consumer awareness around their end-of-life characteristics. That means deploying capital investments for new infrastructure for composting. It also means standardising labels on products, so consumers know the options.
Bioplastics still have a hard time competing head-on with petrochemical plastics. The future of bioplastics is mainly driven by regulations and the principle of environmental concern. Due to their busy lifestyle, customers prefer spending on the on-the-go food products. With the increasing demand for fresh on-the-go food products, restaurants and food retail outlets are opting effective packaging solutions such as bioplastics.
Food retail outlets and restaurants are increasingly utilising biodegradable packages for a range of products including frozen fruits and vegetables, bakery, and dairy products. In order to offer environment-friendly packaging solutions, leading manufacturers are utilising agricultural bio products and sugar derivatives to produce bioplastics.
Besides environment-friendly packaging solutions, manufacturers are further concentrating on developing edible biodegradable packages to improve customer experience.  There are a lot of different ways for bioplastics to grow, and a lot of work has to be done.
However, there is hope for the future.
In order to get bioplastics to commercially scale successfully, companies need to adopt them for their potential applications in operations at greater rates (packaging, etc.). Still, Bioplastics will need to overcome several challenges before they can become mainstream. Sourcing enough organic matter from food industries typically requires changing existing supply chains and working closely with manufacturers.
Secondly, for the final price to be comparable with existing plastics, the production process must be scalable to the point that the economics are favourable. Besides all such problems, there are also concerns that novel materials may present new food-safety issues. Chitin, for instance, could be an issue for people with shellfish allergies, whilst products containing wheat gluten could affect those with coeliac disease. Clearly, more research is needed into the potential for compounds in new packaging materials to migrate into and affect the food product.
Perhaps the greatest danger is that bioplastics may take our focus off the real issue: we have become a single-use society where packaging is typically used once then thrown away. The most efficient way to reduce packaging waste is simply to reuse packaging or not use it in the first place.
Already, innovators and entrepreneurs are leading the way, including new pack formats; zero-packaging shops and reuse schemes for takeaway meal containers. Whilst the creativity driving new bioplastics is wonderful, we should not use it as an excuse to plunder our planet’s resources for uses that last merely minutes.
There is no one single solution to the plastic phenomenon. On the one hand, the rate we are producing, and consuming plastics is destroying our living planet. On the other, plastic is a light-weight, durable and relatively cheap to produce material. It saves on transportation costs both financially and environmentally, keeps food safe to consume for a long time.
The complex problem of plastics needs to be tackled from all fronts. Yes, reducing one’s personal plastic waste is part of the solution, but we also need to think about the larger picture. Plastic is not just found in the supermarket, it is everywhere and anywhere. The future of plastic lies not in its complete demise but in its reinvention as bioplastics.
For each single application of bioplastics, we are now able to choose the option that really makes sense in terms of performance, durability and end-of-life options. Believing in possibilities and acting responsibly becomes our major strength for achieving a more sustainable way of living.
We hope that Bioplastics can reduce many problems posed to the environment and other living organisms by the normal plastics. We are all obliged to respect the differentiation of waste to properly allocate it and avoid waste that undermines the resources of our planet.

BIO PLASTICS RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

A talented student from Karachi University have discovered a way to save the environment from the harmful effects of using plastic. Researcher Dr Anjum Feroz has an ‘edible’ plan to tackle this global waste problem. Based in KU’s food science and technology department and has made edible plastic for her PhD research. The plastic is made using mango waste. Dr Feroz chose mangoes because Pakistan is the fourth largest producer of mangoes in the world. The researcher found that the kernel of a mango seed can be used to successfully make biodegradable film or an edible form of plastic.  There is around 60% starch present in the kernel, and she has developed a method to extract and utilise it to make edible plastic as a result. However, the sustainability and feasibility of using our mangoes may end up being used for mass bio plastic production instead of us actually eating the real fruit, and hence the actual science behind the degradation must be understood better as well. 
In such an example, at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Prof. Juan Carlos Colmenares has been successful in producing Hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) out of waste from food production. HMF replaces PET, a substance which blocks bacteria and fungi from degrade this material. Such research and understanding of underlying mechanisms are indeed important to solve the root issue of the problem and Pakistani researchers would do well to follow such examples as well.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

We can make a positive difference by actively cutting down on the plastics you use.  We can use reusable cotton bags and take that with you ever time you go shopping. Buy your fruit and vegetables loose, avoiding the extra plastic on pre-packaged items. Use long-lasting items (such as razors and refillable pens) rather than disposable ones. It can work out far cheaper in the long run.
When we must buy new things, why not buy ones made from recycled materials? By helping to create a market for recycled products, you encourage more manufacturers to recycle.
One day, we may have perfect plastics that break down in a trice. Until then, let us be smarter about how we use plastics and how we get rid of them when we’ve finished with them.
Recycling, though valuable, is only slightly better than throwing something away. We still must use energy and water to recycle things and you probably create toxic waste products as well. It is far better to reduce our need for plastics in the first place than to have to dispose of them afterwards. We can ultimately help create a culture for recycled products by actively choosing them over alternatives.

ADVANTAGES OF USING BIOPLASTIC

  • Reduces carbon footprint.
  • Energy savings in production.
  • Non – toxic.
  • Does not involve the consumption of non-renewable raw materials.
  • Reduces non-biodegradable waste, which is harmful.
  • Does not change the flavour or scent of the food contained.
  • Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and energy efficiency.
  • The main advantage is that bioplastic end-of-life options divert a large amount of waste away from landfills and oceans, and do not contribute to the environmental issues that we see traditional plastics causing today.
  • Consumers would be able to have their take-out without the guilt or environmental damage.
  • For the consumer packaging industry, it provides a better material for single-use products.
  • Global bioplastic packaging market is expected to witness growth on account of increasing consumer awareness towards eco-friendly products.
  • Shifting preference from synthetic derived chemicals products to eco-friendly substitutes is expected to stimulate the bioplastic packaging market.
  • Chemical manufacturers have increased their expenditure for the development of bio-based chemicals with a prime intention to reduce reliance on petrochemical feed stocks which is expected to increase the availability of raw materials for bioplastic packaging products.
  • Textile industry is expected to be a lucrative application for bioplastic packaging in light of increase awareness towards deployment of environment protection practices.
  • Biodegradable plastics or bio plastics are currently also marketed as mulching films for agriculture, which farmers can just leave on the fields to plow under. For decades, plastic mulch film has been spread out on fields to support crop growth and save pesticides and water. But with conventional plastics this so-called Plasticulture can cause “white pollution” to accumulate on farmland if it is not removed and discarded. The problem with this method is that, wind or animals might carry pieces of broken film into the air, rivers or oceans, to places where they might not be able to biodegrade. There’s also a potential for chemicals to leach from the films to the soil ecosystem.
  • If Bioplastic is thrown in the landfill. It means that bioplastics could have a truly net-negative contribution to global warming, but only if you throw them away in an inert landfill. But they still take the same amount of energy to produce as conventional plastics.

DISADVANTAGES OF USING BIOPLASTIC

  • Production of these bioplastics requires almost 80% of the energy required to produce common plastic.
  • Cause harm to the ecosystems. To compost, it requires industry type facilities, many days.
  • There is no proper differentiation between the usual plastics & bioplastics, which makes it difficult to identify.
  • The factor inhibiting the commercial application of bioplastic is relatively high cost of production.Current research in polymer sciences focusses on the standardisation and optimisation of microbial growth conditions, fermentation as well as downstream processing methods to produce commercially viable bioplastic.
  • Indeed, bioplastic production may result in greater amounts of pollutants, due to fertilisers and pesticides, used in growing crops, and the chemical processing needed to turn organic material into plastic.
  • Most bioplastics need specialised composting facilities to breakdown. Therefore, bioplastics may terminate their life in landfills where they may release methane, a green gas 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
  • If bioplastics contaminate PET batches the recycling facility can be severely harmed. In the evidence of bioplastic contamination entire lots of PET could be rejected by recycling facilities and end up in landfills.
  • Proper discard of bioplastics is essential to preserve the present plastic recycling efficiency and avoid the increase of pollutants in to the nature.
  • Several problems persist behind the promises of bioplastic. Land usage, GMO, herbicides, pesticides, methane emission, recycling to name a few drawbacks that are behind the benign perception of the bioplastic concept.
  • Drinking straws made from PLA are “the perfect example for greenwashing.” They are more expensive than other plastic drinking straws, but don’t readily biodegrade on a beach or in the sea. PLA is recyclable, biodegradable and compostable. But that does not mean the ocean, or any other natural environment can easily handle it.
  • One big problem has been the land needed to grow the plants. Bioplastics estimates to be needing more than 0.02 per cent of agricultural land.
  • According to the researches going on, it is concluded that, increase in bio-based plastics could raise the pressure on arable land, potentially leading to water shortages, desertification and the loss of habitats and biodiversity. It is also noted that the reliance on industrial agriculture to produce new plastics might increase monoculture cropping and the use of pesticides.
  • Typically, you will find bio degradable used for packaging. It will not typically be used for non-packaging applications because most of those applications require longevity from the plastic, not something that biodegradable usually offer. Equally though, many packaging applications require guaranteed minimum shelf life, or pack integrity might be critical, such that biodegradable plastics are not suitable anyway.
Meanwhile different types degradation requires different types of biodegradable plastic. Aerobic for composting and anaerobic for landfill, which complicates life enough that alternatives appear more attractive.
There’s no doubt, bioplastics are still plastics. Just because some of them are made from plants or have the potential to biodegrade under limited conditions, they cannot be touted as “planet-safe.” For the ones that claim to biodegrade or compost, the fine print is crucial.

EXAMPLES OF BIO BASED PLASTIC

  • One example is bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which can replace oil-based PET currently used to make drinks bottles.
  • About 25% of it is recycled and the recycled fibre can be used to make fleece garments, carpets, stuffing for pillows, and life jackets.
  • Coca-Cola’s ‘Plant Bottle’, is made partially from bio-based PET derived from sugar cane residue, which is fully recyclable in PET recycling streams.
  • Bio plastic also include oil-based plastics that can biodegrade, for instance poly butyrate adipate terephthalate (PBAT), used in flexible packaging such as compostable shopping bags.
  • One of the most widely-used bioplastics is poly lactic acid (PLA), made from fermented plant starch such as corn, sugarcane or sugar beet pulp.
This bioplastic is used to make shopping bags, transparent cups, 3-D printing material and other products. Because it can be derived from plant material like corn sugar, potato or sugarcane, it can reduce the demand for fossil fuels used to make conventional plastics.
Discovered in the 1920s by Wallace Carothers, PLA plastics are made with plants. In most cases, PLA can be incinerated or composted. PLA plastics need to be composted in a high-temperature commercial composting system.
Since it is both plant-derived and biodegradable, it is becoming increasingly popular for ‘sustainable’ takeaway containers for food and drink.
However, within the plastic packaging industry, PLA often provokes a ‘marmite’ reaction. On one hand, it is seen as a solution to packaging waste that is contaminated with food residue, which cannot be recycled. But if a meal is served in a PLA container, both the packaging and the food waste can be disposed of together and sent to a composting facility.
Producing PLA uses 65% less energy than producing conventional plastics like PET. It also generates fewer greenhouse gases and contains no toxins. Also, bioplastics can be made from low-water plants such as switchgrass that are about 100 days old. PET plastic is made from oil that could be more than 100 million years.
  • PHA: It is complicated than Other kinds of bioplastics, they are known to be better biodegrade in marine environments.
Among different materials tested at the lab, are bioplastics called polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). Produced by microbes, PHAs currently comprise a tiny slice of the market. A thin film of PHA will degrade in a tropical environment on the seafloor in one to two months.
  • BASF’s biodegradable polymers, which include Ecoflex, a petrochemical-based polyester.
  • Seaweed-based packaging
One of the Indonesian company is producing a plastic alternative which is eco-friendly, bio-degradable and even edible packaging solutions. Their packaging is seaweed-based which means it dissolves in warm water, is 100% biodegradable and it’s not only safe to eat it also contains good fibres, vitamins, and minerals naturally found in seaweed and the products made of it have a 2-year shelf life.
  • NUATAN: Another exciting plastic alternative is NUATAN, which is a new sustainable material, made out of 100% raw renewable resources, polymerised from corn starch and metabolised by microorganisms, and it is compostable.It also supposedly has a lifespan up to 15 years and can withstand temperatures up to 110 degrees Celsius.
  • A few months before, Lego launched sustainable bricks made from a plant-based plastic sourced from sugarcane.
  • HDPE is the stiff plastic used to make milk jugs, detergent bottles, and some plastic bags. It is the most commonly recycled plastic and it is one of the safest forms of plastic. And products made of HDPE are reusable and recyclable.
The amount of plastic we produce to package consumer goods, packaged foods, beverages, toiletries,  has reached an unprecedented level.
The quantity of plastic packaging in the food and consumer goods industries is part of the problem. Yet at the same time, tons of food end up in landfills every year. Petroleum-based plastics don’t truly biodegrade or compost. However, in order to preserve food and other items, packaging is still needed.
Bioplastics, made from starches, vegetable oils and other renewable sources that break down in a natural environment, could be the solution.
Writer: Sundeela Fayyaz

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Plastic Bags ban in Islamabad: what are the alternatives?

Polythene bags or plastic bags have without any doubt long term negative effects on environment and our ecosystem. The recent bans on them means alternatives which we should be thinking about now.    

Time and again, we have suffered floods resulting in loss of lives and properties due to choked lines of our water drainage system in different cities and one of the major causes is plastic bags. Recently in Karachi, nearly 50 people lost their lives due to flooding and electricity shocks after a series of rains in the city and again the major cause being the choked sewerage lines due to plastic bags. According to Ministry of Climate Change, 55 billion plastic bags are being used in Pakistan with an estimated increase of 15% per annum. Plastic bags are hazardous in any form, are notorious for choking sewer, open drainage system, spoiling sanitation and creating an overall unaesthetic view of environment. They are typically non-biodegradable and moreover, burning of plastic bags creates more problems for the citizens.

Ban on Plastic Bags in Islamabad and response

After the 18th Amendment in Pakistan’s Constitution, environment is now a provincial subject so are the other related issues. The Federal government can only operate in the Federal Capital Islamabad in this regard and it announced to put ban on the use of polythene bags in a cabinet meeting in May this year. Islamabad Metropolitan Corporation (IMC) and administration of the city effectively run campaigns to aware people about hazards of using plastic bags. At some places they also distributed sample alternatives of plastic bags among citizens but generally they failed to convince people that they should not use plastic bags for the sake of their health. The decision was largely welcomed by all walks of life with some concerns on options for alternatives of these easy to carry bags. After more than a week (at the time of filing this article), a visible change has not been seen in the city and people have even resisted to this ban complaining to facing difficulties in finding alternatives. Traders and manufacturers have shown resistance on ban on plastic bags and even some of them sought stay order from Islamabad High Court which was overturned by the court. Staffers of a famous eatery in Islamabad were seen in contention with Ministry of Climate Change officials who were there for implementation of ban.

Habit of using plastic and confusion in understanding the ban

We are so habitual for using easy to carry and single use plastic bags that we carry liquid eatables in them. We have seen people carrying plastic bags filled with hot cup of tea, fresh yogurt, milk, cooking oil and list goes on. Changing these habits in a single campaign would not be possible to bring about drastic changes. Then there are many types of plastic wrappers used for wrapping of different eatables. Potato chips are available in packaged plastic wrappers of many national and multinational brands. Similarly, many other eatable and non-eatable things are wrapped in beautifully designed shopping bags. Consumers and even shopkeepers are confused in Islamabad that what is banned and what is not banned. By visiting a Sunday market, I observed that vendors were reluctant to give away their products in plastic bags fearing penalties by the district administration, but consumers were demanding for bags. There should have been an effective campaign for awareness of general public that they should not use plastic bags for the sake of their health not due to fear of penalty or punishments. They should change their habits of using these easy to carry bags which may result in a bundle of problems for themselves in future.

What are the alternatives?

There are alternatives to plastic bags available in market but they not in abundance in which plastic bags are. Consumers are reluctant to carry cloth or reusable bags from home when going to markets. Here we will see some alternatives of the plastic bags which are made for multi-uses purpose and are durable as well.

Paper Bags

Paper bags are 100% biodegradable, recyclable, and reusable as compared to single use plastic bags. Paper bags are easy to manufacture and can be designed and made at household levels. We can reuse paper to get maximum benefit from the paper.

Canvas Bags

Made from cotton, canvas bags are more durable and are available comes in the variety of sizes and shapes. This can also be made at household levels and used as many times as you want. These are also washable and can be used for different purposes.

Cotton Bags

Cotton bags are beneficial option for consumers as these are biodegradable and reusable. Since Pakistan produces quality cotton and it is available easily, government can support this industry to provide alternate of plastic bags. Cotton bags can be made in different shapes and designs as well.

Jute Bags

Jute bags once have been part of our culture and market. They are a good old alternative to plastic bags. Jute is naturally biodegradable and eco-friendly product and are easy to be made. Jute has also been used to make beautiful baskets to carry different things in the past and we can revive our culture by bringing innovation in this regard.
Overall, banning plastic bags in Islamabad is a good and appreciable step taken by the authorities and should be replicated across the country, and environmentally safe alternatives should be taken. Though plastic free Pakistan looks a day-dream, but it is not impossible to make this dream a reality by our collective efforts.
Writer: Abdul Aleem Chaudhry

Articles

Lightning Safety: Rules to follow during a Thunderstorm

Lightning can be a deadly and dangerous threat. Here are some safety tips to stay away from harm’s way.      

I had a close call with a lightning strike in 2007 when I was a college student. I was returning from a short hiking trip on the trail in Murree. It was a cloudy afternoon with drizzle, and everything was looking perfect. But then, without any warning, an arc flashed before my eyes with a loud bang! It took me a few seconds to realize that a thunderbolt had struck a big tree knocking it down to the ground. It all happened in the blink of an eye, barely 50 feet ahead of me. I was unharmed but shaken as walking past that point a few seconds earlier could have killed me.
The thunderstorm is a nature’s fury which can pose several risks to public safety. Lighting strike is a serious hazard which can result in serious injury or death. It is responsible for 6000 deaths and over 240,000 injuries every year worldwide. Following these precautionary measures could be helpful to keep you safe:
Always look for weather warning forecast you can get from TV, radio and smartphones weather apps. Plan your outdoor activities and trips accordingly because being outdoors in a storm is a bad idea. Sometimes weather forecasts could be wrong, and an unexpected thunderstorm could happen. So, you should not over-rely on weather app, pay attention to the early signs of a thunderstorm.

Remember the 30-30 Safety Rule

After you first see or hear lightning, count to 30. If it happens again before you reach 30, it is not safe to go outdoors. It is also advisable to play safe for the following 30 minutes after thunderstorm subsides.

Walking or Riding a 2-wheeler

Staying indoors during a thunderstorm is your best bet to stay safe. Lightning hits more people outdoors most of the times. Park your bike and take shelter in any nearby building with a solid construction e.g. home, office, a restaurant, a shopping mall, etc. If this is not an option, get in your car and wait for the storm to pass. If you are far from a safe place and do not have a car, then take ‘Lightning Safety Position’ as a last resort. Bend low, while keeping both of your feet close with very little of your body touching the ground. Do not take shelter under metal objects and tall trees. If you must stay under a tree, choose the shortest one around you. Thunderbolt strikes the tallest objects and good conductors of electricity e.g. utility poles. It is also highly advisable not to use an umbrella during a thunderstorm as it can make you more vulnerable to a lightning strike. Wear a raincoat to keep your clothes dry.

Driving

Cars are generally safer but a vehicle with an open roof or a soft-top convertible car/SUV (jeep) offers very little or no protection against a lightning strike. You should be more careful while driving this type of car in bad weather conditions. If you’re very close to a safe place where you can take shelter, then it is better to keep driving until you get there. Park as close to the building as possible because the longer you walk, the more vulnerable you would be. In case you are far from a safe place, turn on the hazard lights and pull over to the shoulder. Keep your hands in your lap and avoid touching any metal part in your vehicle. Some people install aftermarket ‘fake wireless radio antennas’ just to make their cars look ‘cool’. This type of fake antennas has no useful purpose and they cannot be retracted making the car more vulnerable to lightning strike during thunderstorms. You should consider removing it if your car already has one. If you do not find a safe spot to pull over, then keep driving at safe minimum speed until you can find a suitable place to stay or storm subsides.

Indoors

Being indoors during a thunderstorm usually makes you feel safe but there is still some risk present. A lightning strike can cause a high voltage current to travel over 100 feet. Stay away from walls and metal objects such as windows. Do not touch a landline or any telephone/internet router connected to a roof-mounted external antenna.
Taking shower in your bathroom also increases the risk of electrocution because lighting could hit the air vent pipe of the rooftop water tank sending a high voltage electric shock down to the house plumbing. Do not take showers during a heavy thunderstorm and avoid touching any faucet or pipe. Toilet seats are generally safe to use because they do not conduct electricity but minimize your body contact with metal faucets.
Always remember to follow these rules and teach your loved ones how to stay safe in thunderstorms.
Writer: Sultan Kiani
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