By Piyumani Ranasinghe –
Improving the common man’s knowledge on the ban on polythene in Sri Lanka is a critical juncture that requires most of the investment in ensuring that the momentum of the ban does not dissipate. Even if ignorance is considered bliss, the quintessential element of successful enforcement of any environment regulation requires regular awareness. Hence, the prevailing command and control mechanisms in addition to all market based approaches require the enlightenment of the consumer with regard to the current ban, which in the books of environmental policy making is considered, making a partial ban on destructive plastic actually work. In this regard, it is vital to reiterate the origins of the ban in Sri Lanka at the wake of the Meetotamulla garbage dump tragedy. Even as you read this, garbage is being piled up, either legally or illegally in a landfill somewhere close to your neighborhood. Thus, the partial ban that is enforced currently ought to be considered a plausible way forward towards a complete ban on the destructive polythene bag, which is not only an action point in achieving the sustainable developmental goals as a nation, but also vital in resolving the persisting solid waste management crisis in the island.
What exactly is prohibited?
In terms of polythene products, the ban on polythene currently covers, the manufacture, sale, offer for sale or free of charge, exhibition and the use of polythene or any product of polythene that is 20 microns or below in thickness (GN 2034/33). In addition to that, it also bans the manufacture, sale, exhibition and the use of polythene food wrappers commonly known as lunch sheets (GN 2034/34). In fact, the Gazette notification 2034/34 is inclusive of both high and low density polyethylene alongside polypropylene which was used as raw material in the production of the said food wrappers in the past. Instead, compostable lunch sheets are an alternative available in the Sri Lankan market today. Biodegradability of these plastics are due to the fact that the products are manufactured amalgamating raw materials such as Corn Starch, Poly Lactic Acid (PLA) and Poly Butylene Adipate-co-Terephthalate (PBAT) that have been specifically engineered to facilitate the process of biodegradation and compostability, based on scientific tests run as per the EN13432 standard, which is a standard recognized in the European Union that defines the criteria compostable packaging has to meet.
Grocery bags manufactured from high density polyethylene is also prohibited under the current ban alongside (GN 2034/35), the use of all forms of polythene, polypropylene and polyethylene as decorations in political, social, religious, national or cultural occasions are also banned (GN 2034/37). Importantly, the manufacture, sale and the use of lunch boxes, plates, cups, spoons from expanded polystyrene (commonly known as rigifoam) is also prohibited (GN 2034/38).
Importantly, activities varying from regular use, manufacture, sale, giving for free, exhibition, use in decorations to open burning of refuse and other combustible material inclusive of plastic (GN 2034/36) is prohibited under the current ban; rendering all aforementioned activities punishable offences in the Republic of Sri Lanka, which will result in a Rs. 10,000 fine alongside 2 years of imprisonment.
Factors affecting Compliance to the Ban
The factors affecting the compliance of the polythene ban is distinct according to the consumer and retailer. In terms of the consumer, the primary factor at the face of compliance is the level of enforcement of the ban, according to Lane and Potter (2007). For example, in Gupta (2011) notes that, irrespective of the production, distribution and use of plastic bags ban in Bangladesh, violations of the regulation are common. Cost is also a factor that determines compliance with the regulations on the part of the consumer. Consumers often prefer cost-free bags that can be used conveniently. Convenience can depend on various cultural factors as well as the individual choice on the consumer. However, as stressed by Winter and May (2001), awareness of the ban and its consequences is a predominant factor in terms of compliance. Additionally, factors such as education, age as well as something as general as attitudes of the consumer can affect compliance. It should be understood that motivation primarily defines compliance (Becker, 1968). In Sri Lanka, awareness is a key issue in ensuring ban compliance. According to Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL), consumer identification of banned items is a crucial problem, even for a person who’s willing to adapt. Hence, the public outreach in terms of awareness in identifying biodegradable or compostable plastics is an indispensable step that can be taken up by the Central Environmental Agency (CEA), considering it a priority.
The retailer on the other hand is interlinked to the policy making process itself and has the ability to strike a balance between the public interest of the environmental regulation as well as other market oriented interests. For example, the retailers can benefit by reducing the cost of procuring polythene bags and profit by selling reusable or compostable bags. This is currently a practice being adopted by Supermarkets of Sri Lanka, where in certain cases compostable bags are sold at Rs.1.50 each. However, it is also vital to ensure that small scale retailers have sufficient means of adhering to the regulations. Moreover, purchasing compostable bags can be an inconvenient and unnecessary cost in the consumer’s eye. Thus, the CEA should enable certain mechanisms that balance both the interests of the consumer and the retailer in ensuring the smooth transition to eco-friendly alternatives, which is in return fundamental to ban compliance. Awareness is positively correlated to compliance in terms of the retailer as well. Compliance in terms of retailers largely bounces between the costs incurred and the risk of being caught (Bishal, 2016).
The Way Forward: Making Recycling a Routine?
Lying on the said dynamics, the current ban, irrespective of its issues concerning enforcement efficacy is arguably an environmentally sound step taken in terms of managing the inland solid waste management crisis, which continue to linger at every dusk and dawn. The real struggle lies in the shift towards sustainable means and methods of sufficing the purpose of a single-use polythene bag or lunch sheet that is such a common place consumer essential. A fundamental issue also lies in disposing the types of polythene that isn’t covered by the polythene ban, given that recycling is not part and parcel of the everyday routine of an average Sri Lankan. EFL noted that low density polythene bags are continuously used by businesses given that it is not listed in the current ban on polythene. The problem is that these bags are equally destructive if disposed irresponsibly even if they are comparatively easy to recycle. CEA’s National Post-consumer Plastic Waste Management programme was recently launched where a tax on plastic imports is being used to help fund the collection and recycling of the waste. According to EFL, the imports of plastic raw materials surpass over 150,000 tonnes each month; and hence, the programme initiated by CEA encourages the masses to segregate the plastic in order to collect and send for recycling. In fact, information on 120 plastic and polythene recyclers based across the country can be located on the website of this programme. However, similar to the ban, developing a routine of recycling is equally dependent on various factors amongst which, motivation is at the crux. Institutional as well as individual incentive towards the cause is of fundamental importance in this regard.
*Piyumani Ranasinghe is a graduate of International Relations from the University of London. She is currently reading for her LL.B. degree at the University of Peradeniya