In 1907, Belgian Chemist, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, that contained no molecules found in nature. Marketed as “the material of a thousand uses,” Bakelite could be shaped or molded into almost anything, providing endless possibilities. Since then, the discovery of plastic has revolutionized each segment of human life. Every piece of equipment and gadget we use today has a plastic component in one form or another. But along with its multiple advantages, plastic is immensely abused – and this is more so in developing countries like India and Pakistan with weak regulations. Shopping bags and other utility items are abundant in every industrial setup and household. As a result, the misuse of plastic has become a significant portion of land and water pollution. A few years ago, Pakistan getting more environmentally conscious and decide to fight the scourge.
Baekeland’s plastic is non-biodegradable, which means it does not decompose and remains in the medium – be it land or water-for time immemorial. Plastic contains dangerous toxic pollutants, which can damage air, water, and soil and cause damage to the environment. Scientists are widely aware of the hazardous effects of plastic on wildlife and natural ecosystems. The presence of plastic all around us causes the landfills to be occupied with solid waste and water canals to be clogged.
Pakistan’s first plastic-free zone
Nevertheless, tables are turning in the right direction in Pakistan. Gilgit-Baltistan- a northern mountainous region in Pakistan known for its raw beauty – is set to become a plastic-free zone effective from Jan 1, 2023. GB’s local and district governments have banned the “use, purchase, export and import of plastic.” With more than half a million tourists visiting GB in a year, the move aims to promote sustainable tourism and make the region waste-free. It is estimated that more than 200,000 kgs of plastic and paper packaging waste are picked up yearly in the region, which increases during the tourist season when they bring a lot of packaged goods and leave this waste after consumption.
Gilgit and Hunza, located on Karakoram Highway, on the ancient Silk route, are two famous tourist destinations in Gilgit Baltistan (GB). With a combined population of approximately 400,000, they have become popular attractions for local and foreign tourists. While the influx of tourists has generated income for the local community, they are also responsible for increasing plastic waste. The waste segregation and management system in the region is managed by GB Waste Management Company (GBWMC) with the support of the respective District Councils.
But the ban is not taking place in isolation, rather is part of an overall strategy; the Gilgit Baltistan Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also working to roll out cloth and paper shopping bags. EPA has said it will ensure that local enterprise is developed to provide eco-friendly cloth and paper bags by giving interest-free loans through Karakoram Cooperative Bank (KCB) and GB Rural Support program (GBRSP) for green business development.
The GB provincial administration has initiated a social media awareness campaign to engage local communities on plastic waste and the dangers of plastic pollution and encourage them to reduce their plastic. This method of influencing the local communities will bring the matter to the grass root level. Considering the ever-increasing social media usage among people of different age groups, this was seen as an excellent way to deliver the message.
It is very unfortunate to see the amount of plastic pollution in these beautiful valleys. There are still sights of visible trash on the banks of rivers. It is thus important that the government acts against pollution by effectively implementing the ban and creating awareness.
Tourism, for past few years, has been an emerging economic sector of Pakistan. The number of people flocking to the northern areas, like GB, in the summer has increased in leaps and bounds. But these tourists– while bringing economic activity – also leave behind massive amounts of plastic waste. Coupled with residents’ lack of awareness and bad recycling habits, tourism is now compounding environmental issues.
Clean Gilgit & Hunza project
Nestlé Pakistan, has partnered with the respective District Councils, GB Waste Management Company, and Karakoram Area Development Organization (KADO) to lessen plastic pollution’s disastrous impacts in GB and launched the Clean Gilgit and Hunza Project. This project focuses on waste segregation and recycling systems for Gilgit and Hunza. Two baling machines were installed in the region in 2021, encouraging waste of 700 tons of packaging waste was facilitated by Nestlé Pakistan, and by 2023, the project aims to collect and enable the recycling of 1200 tons of packaging waste. This initiative has been taken given the emerging global vision of a waste-free future and sustainable tourism. Clean Gilgit and Hunza Project marks Nestlé Pakistan’s efforts to reduce the environmental impact of packaging waste by enhancing its management and recycling, in line with UN Sustainable Development Goals 12 & 17: Responsible Consumption & Production and Partnership for Goals.
Hunza was the first district in northern Pakistan to ban plastic shopping bags in 2019. In 2020, one baling and compressing packaging waste machine was installed in the Hunza district under the Clean Hunza Project. This innovative project also installed 24 public benches and waste bins made from 100% recycled plastic waste at popular tourist locations in Gilgit and Hunza. The project by the Hunza administration in partnership with Gilgit Baltistan Waste Management Company (GBWMC) and Nestlé Pakistan has now expanded to Gilgit and Skardu, apart from Hunza, with one waste management machine in each district.
The plastic ban policy first introduced in Hunza has been, since then, copied and employed by other cities in Pakistan. Notably, the ban has been introduced in Punjab province and Islamabad, where the unauthorized sale and purchase of plastic was banned. But despite these efforts, there is little impact on the ground.
The absence of cheap alternatives to plastic is one of the reasons for the un-effectiveness of the plastic ban policy. Cloth bags throughout Islamabad were sold at Rs. 50 upwards, which made it uneconomical for most shoppers. However, good habits take a while to instill, and internationally, in the short-term, charging for plastic bags has been used as an effective way to push people towards bringing their shopping bags or paying for more expensive recycled ones at the shop. In GB, Nestlé Pakistan works with the district councils to distribute 15,000 reusable bags in the community.
However, plastic waste across Pakistan represents a challenge – much bigger than what has been done to confront it. Heaps of trash can be seen in major cities like Peshawar, Lahore, Quetta, etc. This results in boiling gutters, an increase in uncultivated lands, and an accumulation of hazardous toxic materials in land and water. This sorry state can only be reverted by introducing environment-friendly policies on a war footing. The initiative taken by the GB government and follow-up by Nestlé Pakistan shows that the situation is starting to be addressed. The kind of initiative taken in GB should also be multiplied and implemented in other cities.
Maya Nitasha Pirzada is deeply interested in the history, law, sociology, and politics of South Asia and has travelled extensively across Pakistan. She is currently pursuing her studies in Biology and Chemistry in Maryland, United States.