Eateries Threaten Closure As Polythene Ban Nears

by Ashanthi Warunasuriya 

The government has banned polythene lunch sheets from September 1 and certain demands have been made by the restaurateurs. But in the event these demands are not met, all eateries around the country will be closed from September 1, said the President of the Sri Lanka Canteen Owners Association Asela Sampath. According to Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, this environmentally friendly decision taken by the government will definitely come into effect from September and said after the laws are implemented, people will automatically opt for other alternatives in time.

The Canteen Owners Association points out that the government needs to give a written assurance that these lunch sheets will decay in five years, but if it does not happen, they would have the opportunity to initiate legal action. Within the stipulated time frame, they say that there must be a mechanism for them to counter the loss they suffered and recover. Even prior to this instance, although the government introduced lunch sheets and shopping bags claiming that they were biodegradable, these have so far not proved to be biodegradable. Hence, he pointed out, that no room should be left for large scale polythene manufacturers to emerge. Some of the demands put forward to the government by the canteen owners are; to provide an alternative to grocery bags that are being used in work places, provide a concession for water used in restaurants and canteens, increase the number of plates and cutlery provided to canteens operated in government institutions etc.

Banning of lunch sheets was first discussed in 2007 and a dialog on the use of non biodegradable materials became a hot topic. The reason that polythene and lunch sheets were the focus of this discussion was that these were being used in large quantities and the environmental impact it created as these materials were non-biodegradable. They then spoke of a certain standard being imposed for these lunch sheets and polythene. Currently there are around 300,000 canteens being operated around the country. Approximately around 5 million lunch packets are being sold on a daily basis. Of this, around 3 million are sold wrapped in lunch sheets which previously cost between Rs. 1-1.50 but now it’s Rs. 3.50. However, if lunch sheets are to be banned, then the government must consider the extra cost that must be borne by the canteen owners for the cost of labour to wash plates and also the additional cost of water and washing liquid and at least give them water at a concessional rate.

Currently the lower rungs of the work force use small shopping bangs to obtain plain tea and milk tea and other types of drinks. Due to today’s busy lifestyles the take away food industry has fast come up and an average family purchases at least one meal a day from restaurants or canteens. However, despite the government’s proposals to opt for alternative methods of wrapping food, the only available alternatives at present are paper and banana leaves. But, the canteen owners point out that using of paper bags or paper related materials for packaging of food is impractical and obtaining banana leaves as an alternative will have a negative impact on the Banana industry as well.

However, Ranjith Withanage states that banning of polythene is a good move and although currently there is opposition and resistance over this decision, in time people will get used to other alternatives instead. Commenting on the complaints by the canteen owners that their cost would rise due to the extra water needed for washing plates, he said increasing around one rupee on a packet of lunch to compensate for the extra expense on water was worth the effort in comparison to the environmental damage being caused due to the use of polythene and lunch sheets and the eventual expense the government has to fork out to deal with the resultant catastrophes. He said that currently, even certain garment manufacturing companies were initiating discussions on how best they could come up with environmentally friendly packaging for their garment industry requirements. They believe that a good supply and demand chain would be established in time, adding that this would also create new employment for many. Hence the garment industry has expressed their support for the government’s initiate to ban polythene and other materials that have a devastating effect on the environment. They point out that if the use of polythene and other harmful materials are not curtailed, it would be detrimental to not only the environment, but also mankind.

Commenting further Asela Sampath alleged that this was another attempt to create a whole new set of industrialists. He said although the government claims that biodegradable lunch sheets and plastic was being manufactured, they cannot accept the government’s guarantee as they had been cheated in the past. “Even previously Minister Patali gave an assurance that certain polythene products were biodegradable, but to date five years later, there is no sign of these products decomposing. The government’s proposals are not practical. Even prior to this, the Central Environmental Authority, Environmental Ministry and government officials assured us that the products they put to the market were biodegradable, but in the end these products were the same as the previous products and all that happened was that their business community friends and partners became rich through this. To wash a single plate we have to use at least 2.5 litres of water and as such we should be given a concession on water at least. If we are to start using banana leaves to serve food, then people will start cutting down banana trees and this in turn will impact on the banana trade. On the other hand they tell us to use lotus leaves as an alternative. The lotus leaves were earlier sold at Rs. 3 per leaf but now it has shot up to Rs. 6. Moreover Sri Lanka does not possess a machine that could determine the micron count in polythene, so how can they test this effectively. These haphazard decisions by the government are not practical at all. If we are not provided viable alternatives and solutions, we will definitely close down all canteens from September 1,” he warned.

Meanwhile, Environmentalist Tilak Kandegama said although the government’s decision to ban polythene and other environmentally damaging materials was a very welcome and good move, its sudden implementation is bound to inconvenience the public. Expressing his views further he said, “This decision by the government is like suddenly waking up from a dream. When such rash decisions are taken it is others who suffer. The decision is good but there is a problem. What I see is that there is a conflict in good decisions and ethical standards. In the end even though the intentions of the government are good, it’s the people who are most affected by this decision because without a viable alternative, are people expected to carry their lunch in their pockets? Due to this rash decision making, even though the intentions are good, the government will not be able to get any positive outcome. Hence, the best option would be to give the people a proper training first. As a government what they should have done was to first initiate a dialog in this regard and discuss the matter with the public and then implement these changes where even the people have adequate time to adjust and find other alternatives,” he pointed out.

Talking of the history of polythene, it was first introduced in California, USA in 1958 and by 1962, Japan had started using it during the 1980-1982 period, as something that was gained as a result of the open economy.

However, the Sri Lankan government had taken the decision to ban polythene and lunch sheets taking into consideration the impact it has on the environmental. The government suggests the use of alternative materials such as banana leaves, lotus leaves and paper bags as an alternative to lunch sheets. However, the issue here is that the ban is due to be enforced by September 1, and if by then the industry can adjust to alternative packaging in such a short span of time. Many are of the view that although the ban on polythene is a good move by the government, the sudden enforcement of the ban leaves no time for those using these materials to adjust to alternatives. In fact it is questionable as to why Sri Lanka took so long to address this issue. Bangladesh banned polythene use from March 1, 2002. Even though Sri Lanka has taken so long to take this step and impose this ban, it is a good decision in terms of environmental protection and the resultant protection of all living beings. Hence even though late, such environment protections are vital for the preservation and wellbeing of mankind.

Cabinet approval has been granted for the implementation of the long term, medium term and short term programme presented by the experts’ Committee appointed for the preparation of a national policy and action plan for the proper management of polythene and plastics. The Committee has proposed to ban the use of polythene for all decorations including national, religious, social, cultural and political festivals.

Minster Gayantha Karunatilake had highlighted the environmental catastrophe resulting in the use of polythene for decorating of streets during rallies and protests. He said   Prohibition of polythene used for decorations in all events, implementing the prevailing regulations for prohibition of use, sale and production of polythene equals or less than 20 microns, allowing the use of polythene less than 20 microns for essential activities only on the approval of Central Environmental Authority, the prohibition of sale, importation and production of lunch sheets, the prohibition of sale, importation and production of containers, plates, cups, spoons made using polystyrene and the prohibition of sale of processed or cooked meals packed in polythene containers are the short term proposals. Meanwhile, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said the country will ban plastic shopping bags while it is facing a dengue epidemic and garbage crisis.

Following a proposal by President Maithripala Sirisena the cabinet agreed to ban the use of polythene and Styrofoam which is used to wrap lunch and polythene shopping bags which is used in supermarkets and shops.

The Central Environmental Authority (CEA) also stated that the use, production, import and sale of lunch sheets would be banned under the new regulation.

The CEA added that burning of plastic bags in open areas was also prohibited in an effort to reduce environmental damage caused by the use of non-biodegradable plastic polythene items.

The country is also facing a garbage crisis after a central garbage dump collapsed in April, killing over 30 people and burying an entire neighbourhood.

Sri Lanka this year, also faced its worst ever dengue epidemic with over 225 patients killed and over 80,000 infected. Wildlife too has been killed in many instances, where these animals had consumed polythene and plastic while rummaging through garbage dumps in search of food. Hence the ban is a welcome move, but on the flip side, viable alternatives must also be sought for those who will be affected by the ban.

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