ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, December 31, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 31

Wish you a sili-sili-free New Year

Come tomorrow, the manufacture, distribution and use of thin polythene bags will be a punishable offence

By Nadia Fazlulhaq

Go to a supermarket today and you will, no doubt, come home with more than half a dozen sili-sili bags containing your purchases. Tomorrow, though, it may be a different story as Sri Lanka takes the significant step of doing away with thin polythene in the New Year.

Polythene has been a serious menace for people since its use in countries in the Asian region has been rising rapidly. In recent years, however, governments have responded to increased lobbying by environmentalists and in the wake of Bangladesh slapping a total ban on polythene in 2002, many other Asian countries too have adopted strict laws to minimize its use. Taiwan banned the free distribution of plastic bags while Singapore and India have taken steps to discourage the use of polythene.

Sri Lanka's decision to ban 'thin' polythene (20 and less than 20 micron thickness) from tomorrow means the manufacture, distribution and usage of thin polythene bags such as grocery bags, shopping bags and lunch sheets currently in use will come to an end. With the ban the Government hopes to encourage eco-friendly substitutes.

The thickness of the polythene in use now varies: the sheet that we use for packing our meals is 2-4 microns while the smallest shopping bag is 7-8 microns and the medium sized bags 8-9 microns.

Invoking powers vested on him by Sections 23W of the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980, Environment Minister Maithripala Sirisena on October 10 proclaimed an order through a Gazette Notification (No. 1466/5). The penalties for violating this order are either a fine of upto Rs.10,000 or imprisonment upto two years or both.

So how do people view the ban that will remove certain items commonly used in this country? Environmentalist Dr. Vijitha Perera says he believes it is a timely move as environmental pollution is rapidly increasing with polythene bags and lunch sheets being a major contributory factor.

"The reason floods occur especially in urban areas is due to polythene blocking canals and drainage systems. Dumping used polythene encourages mosquito breeding too. It's not only humans who are affected but wildlife is also in danger. In areas like Minneriya, Manampitiya and Hambantota a large number of animals die after eating polythene bags," says Dr. Perera.

Most of the deaths reported were of cattle and deer, though rarely of elephants, he said.

"These animals come to drink water from rivers and lakes but end up eating polythene bags and lunch sheets which remain on the banks. This is affecting our wildlife in a big way," he said.

The CEA and the Colombo Municipal Council will be the institutions enforcing the ban and will supervise and take action against errant manufacturers and sellers.

"This ban is a part of our strategy on Solid Waste Management. The objective of the CEA is to control the production and usage of thin polythene as it cannot be recycled, reused or cleaned. But exports of polythene bags are allowed. As regulators, we mainly aim to enforce the ban of thin polythene and haven't decided on proper alternatives," said H.S. Premaratne, Assistant Director of the Environment Pollution Unit of the CEA.

He said normal polythene would take 400 to 1000 years to decompose and at present is the main component in garbage dumps.
"We have to encourage re-using of lunch sheets. There was a time Sri Lankans reused thick lunch sheets but as 'thin' lunch sheets came to the market people chose the easy way by throwing it into the bin," he added.

People prefer to have banana leaf wrapped lunch packets but as many shops sell in polythene lunch sheets they have no choice.
"When the ban comes in the form of a law everyone should adhere to it. Following the ban many shops will come up with eco-friendly alternatives. The CEA strongly believes that people will follow the rule for the sake of protecting the environment," Mr. Premaratne said. Local alternatives such as banana and palmyrah leaves, cotton, cane, bamboo, rattan and jute could be used instead of polythene bags and lunch sheets. The government should make plans for substantial cultivation and production of these items to meet the demand in future.

In Bangladesh, after the total ban on polythene many people have begun using eco- friendly jute and cotton bags.

So how will people manage without the easy-to-use polythene? "It is ridiculous to reuse a lunch sheet in which you have brought food to work as many go for easy and disposable items. It will be effective if people can use eco-friendly disposable lunch sheets like banana leaves," said Ruvani Gamage, a mother of two presently working in a private firm in Colombo. Meanwhile Mrs. Abeyratne from Kollupitiya said that many people in urban areas could use cloth bags, which are eco-friendly and fashionable.

"I believe that there should be a total ban, because department stores and shops give bags, which are made from thick polythene. There should be a total ban on all sorts of polythene and plastic bags. Supermarkets should choose an alternative or people should go shopping with cloth or rattan bags," she said.

Meanwhile, supermarkets say they will resort to thick polythene bags, which are above 20 microns until all the supermarket chains discuss and come to an agreement on eco-friendly bags.

"For the moment we're hoping to give goods in thick polythene bags but we are also in search of suppliers of eco-friendly bags, degradable cloth or paper bags for a low cost," said Laugfs supermarket General Manager Ravi Dahanayake.

He said all the leading supermarkets would make sure that the additional cost would not be passed on to the customers.

"We are also hoping to sell cloth bags to customers who come to Laugfs supermarkets so that they can reuse them every time they come for shopping," he said.

An official of Keells Supermarkets said that they too were hoping to give goods in thick polythene bags. So it's time to pull out your old cane baskets or invest in some handy cloth bags the next time you go shopping.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.