(WORDS BY Anutara Shakya)
You see it everywhere, on a pile of trash in the corner of a street, floating down the Bagmati river, flying in the air with a strong gust of wind, even on hiking trails around the city.
Plastic pollution is indeed a very big issue in Kathmandu. Each day, Kathmandu produces 1200 metric tonnes of garbage on a daily basis. A large portion of this is plastic waste such as beverage bottles, noodle wrappers, single use plastic, polythene bags and wrappers.
Each year, the amount of plastic waste produced by Kathmandu reaches 550 tonnes. 16 percent of that waste is plastic and a significant portion of that is caused by plastic bottles used to package drinking water, carbonated drinks and juices. In Kathmandu alone, around 400,000 bottles are thrown away everyday and around 4,700,000 plastic bags are used daily.
Drowning in Microplastics
Plastic is widely used for its lightweight durability, easy access, low cost and versatility. It is a convenient product to use if one requires packaging food, carrying items, or holding liquid.
Plastic is used in different ways from households to a large industrial scale. Because of this, the production of plastic has increased day by day. However, plastic is a man-made material and it cannot be disposed of easily. Plastic takes anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose. And burning plastic can release toxic fumes into the atmosphere. Even then, plastic does not fully disappear but breaks down into smaller pieces known as microplastics or nano plastics.
These microplastics can seep into our soil, water and even snow to contaminate our resources like food and drinks. Recently, experts discovered microplastics in the highest altitude ever recorded at 8440 meters above sea level in the Everest Region. These microplastics consisted of polyester, acrylic, nylon and polypropylene; items mostly found in trekking gears. If microplastics can be found at such heights, there is no telling how much microplastic can already be found in Kathmandu valley.
Microplastics pose a big threat not only to our environment but also to the health of our livestock and people. Microplastics are small enough to be carried by air and are difficult to detect. A recent study shows that microplastics have been found in food items in plastic packaging such as titauras, pickles and yogurt that get mixed with the edibles during packaging and storing. We swallow them and we breathe them in. They pose a threat to our health.
Microplastics have also been found in human saliva, hair, and feces all over the world, and the story won’t be different for people living in Kathmandu. They can carry toxic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls, heavy metals and pesticides which can enter our body.
Microplastics inhaled through the air have also been found in lung tissue. It can also enter the body through sweat glands, hair follicles and open wounds. The health effects of microplastics are yet to be studied in more detail.
However, up till now, studies show that microplastics can cause inflammation, neurotoxicity, change the body’s metabolism, and cause immune system dysfunction as well as decrease the body’s energy flow. Several studies point out that today’s children absorb microplastics in their bodies as early as at fetal age, who are particularly vulnerable during their development period for different organ systems.
Plastic Waste Management in Kathmandu
Plastic waste has become one of the biggest problems that Kathmandu valley is tackling right now. In the past, there have been several attempts to slow down single-use plastics in the city.
The banning of plastic bags was first imposed 20 years ago and it has been reimposed many times since then. Yet, it has never been effective. The ban of import, sale and use of plastic bags thinner than 40 microns has been implemented several times.
A plastic ban was announced in 2021 but its implementation got affected by the pandemic lockdown. One of the most well-known attempts at banning plastic was done in 2015, a ban was imposed on using polythene bags and the media carried this message well. However, the policy was short-lived due to the earthquake ensued.
The government introduced a law to enforce the ban in September last year but there has been no mechanism to implement the ban. However, banning plastic bags needs to be taken in a more systematic manner. No matter how harmful plastics are for the environment and our health, imposing an immediate ban will not succeed. This is because people are too dependent on plastics for their daily life. Simply imposing the ban can also affect the plastic manufacturers and their worker’s means of income.
There needs to be more research done on the effective way of banning plastics in Nepal. Along with that, identifying sustainable alternatives of plastic bags need to be discussed with urgency. Alternatives such as development of biodegradable plastic, manufacture of jute bags or cloth bags for shopping and public awareness about the harmful effects of plastic are needed.
Decreasing tax on metal or organic raw materials and increasing tax on plastics can also be a way to curb the excessive use of plastics in Kathmandu and Nepal. Banning the use of single use plastic bags may be possible by ensuring that such plastics are not imported or produced in the nation. But is the government ready to take such actions, or is it just willing to do a lip service talking of the ban over and over again.
Similarly, the government should impose a green tax on Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) manufacturers where packaging is done in plastic wrappers or bottles. This tax can then be used towards recycling and managing waste; however, this might seem a far-fetched dream, since nothing has come up even in the discussions so far.
Consumer behavior and customer awareness also comes into play when it comes to decreasing the use of single-use plastics. When a certain carbonated drink promoted small PET bottles around three years ago as an easy to carry and consumer packaging, many consumers protested as the small bottles would definitely harm the environment calling it as “easier to throw and pollute”.
It has been common knowledge that plastics are harmful but the common folk still do not understand how exactly plastics can cause harm and in what scale. It is up to the government to impose large-scale bans and to implement it in a proper and systematic manner that will actually bring results.
Along with that, Public Service Announcements (PSAs) can help people to understand how to dispose of plastics properly. Banning of plastics cannot be achieved in a day; this process may take several months with actions taking place in different phases. It is a giant project and it is high time the government treats it like one.