By Liesl Clark as part of the series: The Last Plastic-Free Places on Earth
It’s an unfathomable thought: Kathmandu free from the shackles of plastic bags, especially the ubiquitous thin black bags manufactured for single use. We’ve dubbed them modern-day “Himalayan blackbirds,” afloat on the breezes, perched flapping in every tree, roasted in smoldering piles of toxic black smoke often deliberately inhaled by kids desperate to get high on glues and toxins to take them temporarily on an altered-journey from the chaos of this ancient village turned bustling metropolis in just 40 years.
The black less-than-20-microns-thick bags last about as long as it takes to get your street veggies home. And if they actually make it, they’re reused once more to carry the garbage out to the “curb.”
Today is garbage day in some neighborhoods of Kathmandu. The day you get to throw your mucky household stuff “away.” But “away” is right there, hiding in plain site. No garbage cans line the streetside. No, here we carry the muck bags, complete with our organic or food waste, even with diapers loaded in baby excrement, to the gutter, in hopes a truck of sorts or bike with a cart behind it will come and scrape it up off the paved-over dirt to go to a sorting location down by the Bagmati River where Kathmandu’s rag pickers peck through the garbage for thicker plastic bags worth about $2.00/kilo. The thin black bags, ironically, are left behind, they’re not recyclable, so are scraped from the pile again and taken to a landfill about 10 kilometers from the city. Mountains of crushed plastic bags make up the Himilayan hills of the landfill.
Back in Kathmandu, much of the rancid garbage that’s picked over river-side, thanks to the crows, humans, and dogs scattering it about to get to the morsels of food inside, ends up in the murky waters of the Bagmati, embarking upon a long sludge-laden journey downriver.
Remarkably, as of a week ago, a Kathmandu-wide bag ban has been put into effect and anyone caught carrying a non-biodegradable bag, come October, is liable to be fined a penalty between 500 and 50,000 Nepali Rupees. That’s $7.50 to $750.
According to a recent editorial in the Kathmandu Post: “It takes about 430,000 gallons of oil to produce 100 million non-degradable plastic bags—a waste of precious resources in a country already struggling with oil shortages. The trend of burning plastic bags after use is dangerously toxic for our respiratory system and the environment. In haphazardly-managed urban areas like Kathmandu, plastic bags are also a burden to drains and waterways. In fact, plastic bags in drains were identified as a major factor contributing to severe floods in neighbouring Bangladesh in 1988 and 1998, resulting in a ban in 2002.”
It’s going to take a huge educational campaign, spearheaded by the Ministry of Environment, to get people to change their plastic bag habits. Even today, when shopping for our last-minute expedition supplies, we were offered the dreaded black bag at every shop. There are 17 plastic industries, a.k.a. bag-makers, in Nepal, 4 of which are in Kathmandu. The ban will surely run them out of business, a manufacturing process most successful businesses in Kathmandu utilize, to get their logos cheaply yet effectively printed on thousands of bags at a time. We visited one 2 years ago and were disheartened by the piles of “nurdles,” the tiny lentil-sized pellets used to make all plastic products, blowing around in the wind and washing into gutters with the rains. Nurdles have been found on every shoreline tested on Earth, even on the beaches of countries that have no plastic industries.
For centuries bags of jute, cloth and wicker baskets carried on backs, called dokos, were the norm for transporting all things consumable. The dokos are still around, and the cloth industry is endemic to Kathmandu. Hence the goods-transportation traditions are still strong in the outlying less modern villages where cultures rely on more sustainable means moving stuff about. Will the crisis of plastics plugging every gutter, sidewalk, and alleyway be alleviated by this ban? Only time can tell. But simply enforcing a city-wide push to greatly reduce the polyethylene bags from reaching the streets and choking the rivers is a laudable step toward a less plastic future.