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The government’s plastic bans have been repeatedly sabotaged by big businesses

Two years ago, just after the government announced a ban on plastic bags thinner than 30 microns, the newly-appointed joint-secretary at the Ministry of Environment, Durga Prasad Dawadi, had visitors.

They were plastic bag manufacturers, and were shown in. They bluntly warned Dawadi that if the ban went ahead, their investment would be lost and tens of thousands of workers would be out of their jobs.

“I told them the main source of garbage on the streets is plastic waste, and we cannot measure the damage to the environment and human health in rupees,” Dawadi recalls. However, he said there first needs to be a law to apprehend and punish plastic bag manufacturers.

Sunil Manandhar was Environment Minister at the time and says the lack of legal provisions is being used as an excuse to allow the plastic industry to function without hindrance. He says the Environment Conservation Law of 1996 clearly spells out conditions under which a violator can have its license revoked.

It has been 20 years since the production and use of plastic bags has seen exponential growth. Now, there are 250 factories converting imported raw material in pellet form into bags and other goods.

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Pics: Bikram Rai

Another former Environment Minister Ganesh Shah admits that he tried but failed to implement the plastic ban in 2008. While being involved in a Bagmati solid waste cleanup campaign, Shah realised that plastic bags constituted a large portion of the city’s non-biodegradable waste. In fact, Kathmandu Valley today produces more than 500 tons of plastic waste a day.

Former ministers, secretaries and other bureaucrats in the Environment Ministry interviewed for this article all confirmed that their initiatives to ban the production of plastic bags were sabotaged by industrialists who enjoyed political protection.

“They used all kinds of pressure and inducements to ensure that the plastic ban was not implemented,” says former minister Manandhar. “I experienced the coercion myself during my tenure.” He suspects that officials of his own ministry involved in formulating a plastic bag ban directive in 2011 were conspiring to allow loopholes.

Durga Prasad Dawadi, who is now Director General of the Department of Environment, says every time a minister started talking about a plastic ban to reduce the garbage burden, somehow the businessmen would get wind of it and arrive at the ministry with large delegations. He says the pressure also came from political party leaders.

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Just a fortnight ago, four businessmen came to his office with a recommendation from the Maoist Minister of Forests and Environment Shakti Basnet to clear 16 truckloads of waste cotton from Bangladesh stopped at Jhapa customs.

“I said I could not clear something harmful to the environment, and they threatened me. They said they would teach me a lesson for not obeying the minister,” Dawadi recalls. He says similar tactics were used to revoke plastic bans in the past.

Another former Environment Secretary Krishna Gyawali says there is no excuse for the bureaucracy to let businesses off the hook: “If the law is weak, it is their job to make it stronger.”

A notice in the gazette announced a ban on bags below 30 microns effective Nepali New Year on 14 April 2015. As with all previous directives, this one was never implemented. This time, the earthquake was used as the excuse, but ex-minister Ganesh Shah is convinced industrialists were again behind it.

Plastic bag manufacturers petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the ban in 2015. However, the court ruled in favour of the government, saying that plastic bags were harmful to human health and the environment, and that the ban had legal basis.

Last year’s budget once again announced a ban on plastic bags. That decision was also soon forgotten. Towns like Pokhara, Biratnagar and Dharan have also tried to implement plastic bag bans without success.

Dawadi says the government’s policy itself is contradictory: “How can the Ministry of Industry give licenses to plastic factories on the one hand, and the Ministry of Environment ban them?”

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Shard Sharma, Chair of the Nepal Plastic Producers Association, says it is natural for his industry to lobby against the ban. “We have invested billions with permission from the government, we have been paying taxes, you cannot ban plastic just because some NGOs oppose it,” he told Nepali Times. “If you want to close us down, we have to be compensated.”

Environmentalists say the excessive use of one-time-use plastic bags clog up drains, spoil river banks, and release carcinogenic dioxin into the air when it is burnt. Thin plastic bags are blown about by the wind into farmlands and affect harvests.

The public is used to the convenience of plastic bags, however, and not enough has been done to raise awareness about its hazards. Affordable alternatives to plastic bags and water bottles are also absent. Future bans must also include foil wrappers and smaller instant noodle and candy packs, Dawadi says.

One way to reduce plastic use would be to tax it, or to put a price on plastic waste, as has been done in the Langtang National Park (see adjoining article).

Shopkeepers can also pay a role, as shown by Bhatbhateni and Big Mart which do not give away plastic bags. But the volume of plastic waste can be reduced if household and street garbage are sorted at source.

There is also an initiative to turn plastic bags into diesel by Rabindra Dhakal at the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). Although proven, it has to be upscaled from a lab experiment to industrial production. On Monday, Kirtipur announced that it would discourage plastic bags, and is distributing 10,000 cloth bags as alternative. Lamahi of Dang has banned plastic cups and plates, and will soon ban bags. However, noodle and biscuit wrappers are still a problem.

Says environmental campaigner Bhusan Tuladhar: “Yes, plastic waste is a huge problem. But with big store chains banning it and rising public awareness, it is not all a flop.”

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