Instead of plastic bags, rather ban plastic bottles

The plan by authorities to ban the use of plastic carrier bags by December 2022 will do very little to reduce the amount of plastic pollution in the environment. By our own estimates, plastic bags amount to less than 10 percent of all improperly-disposed plastic waste in the country’s physical environment. It is clear that what chokes rivers, drainage systems, pavements, streets and the wider landscape are plastic bottles. There is no question about that at least in the context of Zimbabwe. People in this country hardly throw away plastic bags after getting home with their groceries or whatever they would have carried in the bags during shopping. They often keep the carrier bags for future use as a way of reducing the cost of buying new ones when they do their next shopping. That, however, is not the case with non-returnable soft drink bottles that always get chucked away as soon as the contents are consumed. The same also goes for fresh milk plastic containers that, to the majority of local shoppers, have no reusability value in them. These containers always get chucked away too and it is our sincere conviction that they pose a bigger danger to the environment than plastic carrier bags. We therefore think that the country would achieve more if it bans the 500ml petty soft drink bottles, maheu packaging containers of all sizes, the 2-litre Chibuku Super opaque beer bottle, as well as the fresh milk plastic containers of all shapes and sizes. These clearly constitute the biggest plastic pollutants out there and the evidence can be found anywhere. Banning plastic bags while turning a blind eye to plastic bottles is like a dog which barks at the wrong tree. We understand that banning plastic bottles would present enormous economic, political and adaptive challenges because they constitute a multi-billion dollar industry themselves. And that could be part of the reason why authorities are shying away. Many jobs will be lost if plastic bottles are banned at a time when the country lacks the adaptive capacity to afford viable alternatives. Except the usual aluminium cans and glass bottles in the case of soft drinks, the manufacturing industry has not yet figured out other alternatives to replace plastic bottles. Besides, there is so much vested political interest in the dairy and soft drink sector of the economy such that introducing such a ban would be tantamount to shooting oneself in the foot. But then, this is the price that we must be prepared to pay as a country if we are really serious about ridding our environment, our drainage systems and our sewerages of plastic waste. There practically cannot be two-ways about it. While the logic that the Environmental Management Agency (Ema) is advancing to justify the ban on plastic carrier bags is their ostensible non-recyclability, the watchdog fails to acknowledge that a tiny fragment of recyclable plastic bottles are actually getting recycled. The country is not doing very well in terms of waste recycling, leading to tonnes and tonnes of recyclable plastic bottles remaining in the environment. The same goes for aluminium cans most of which end up in the environment where they are never retrieved despite being made of recyclable material. Authorities have not done enough to promote recycling as a measure to conserve the environment and to create real livelihoods for many people. Some of the few committed people who collect plastic, glass and cans for recycling do it largely as a pastime which they are passionate about, and not as a source of livelihood. The others who do it for livelihood often suffer hard manual work for very little returns that do not at all justify the amount of work done. We therefore need a new approach, and that approach include banning plastic bottles while developing the country’s recycling industry.