Ban on plastic bags: will it work this time?

The National Environment Commission (NEC) has resuscitated the 20-year-old ban on plastic carry bags. Come April 1, any business establishment found selling or using plastic bags would be fined Nu 500 in the first instant, with double the penalty in the second. The third offence could result in the cancellation of the business license.

The idea to ban plastic use, in any form, is novel. There is simply no argument against it. And given the increasing waste management issues we are currently confronted with, the second attempt at banning use of plastic bags must be in fact welcomed. There is nothing wrong in trying to make a good idea work again and the effort must be genuinely applauded.

Thimphu alone produces over 60 metric tons of waste every day, and the only landfill at Memelekha is bursting at its seams. The problem only magnifies when we take into account waste generated across the country. And that calls for a serious rethinking of how we deal with waste โ€“ starting from advocacy for positive behavioral change to stringent policies, regulations and effective enforcement.

There is so much more that needs to be done.

The only problem with the reinstatement of the ban on plastic bags is the doubt whether it will work this time. And why should it? There is a pervasive sense of skepticism among the people that this ban, like the first one in 1999, will meet the same tragic fate.

For valid reasons, that is.

Firstly, how would the ban on plastic carry bags and doma wrappers alone cut down plastic waste? Secondly, what about other plastic wastes such as plastic bottles and plastic wrappings? Almost all imported goods are packaged in plastic. Thirdly, are there non-plastic alternatives that would enable people to migrate to more eco-friendly options?

And the most pressing issue of all is, do NEC and other enforcement agencies have the wherewithal and the stamina to implement the ban? Or else, it would become another joke on another ban that didnโ€™t work. And if that happens, we would be making a mockery of ourselves.

The ban on plastic carry bags, or for that matter any other ban, must be accompanied by mass advocacy with creative messages targeted at different groups. Behavioral change does not happen overnight. And more often than not, it takes constant effort and investments. In fact, advocacy and education must start at home and in schools. Parents must show the way. If our towns are littered with waste, we canโ€™t blame the municipality or Thromde alone for not managing the waste properly. It is a reflection of who we are as a society.  

When education and advocacy do not work, stringent penalties might. Singapore is an extreme example of how hefty fines, up to US$ 5,000 for third time offenders, even imprisonment, have ensured that its cities and towns are spick and span. And this overtime has given rise to the civic culture of the entire nation.

As a champion of environment, Bhutan still has the opportunity to lead the way. We can still make this ban work. All of us need to come together. And work together. For, like it or not, all of us are in it together.