The use and production of polythene, sili sili bags, grocery bags and humble lunch sheets was banned in Sri Lanka in September 2017.While some applauded the step pointing to the detrimental effects of polythene waste on the environment, others protested, stating the lack of alternatives and the effect of the ban on their livelihoods. Almost two years on, has Sri Lanka been weaned off its reliance on polythene?

Researchers at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI) collected interesting information during an extensive study conducted on the situation following this polythene ban. They collected information from government institutions, non-governmental organisations, material researchers, major foodstuff producers, polythene manufacturers, supermarket chains, grocery shops, food vendors, entrepreneurs, plastic collectors and recyclers as well as the public. Overall, about 1,400 individuals were interviewed in this study which mainly focused on the Western Province.

According to Gazette No. 2034/34, as of September 1, 2017, the manufacture, trade and use of polythene lunch sheets has been banned. Additionally, Gazette No. 2034/35 states that grocery bags made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are prohibited from being produced and sold. It means that all lunch sheets used in Sri Lanka should be made of a non-polythene biodegradable material, while grocery bags must be manufactured using low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or other (preferably biodegradable) substance.

Manufacturers have apparently shifted to producing starch-based lunch sheets that naturally decompose within a relatively short period after disposal. The main shift in grocery bag production was from HDPE to an equally non-degradable LDPE. But it appeared that the public has been largely misinformed regarding this situation as the study found 31 percent of the surveyed public assumed that the newer grocery bags were biodegradable, while 41 percent were unsure about its nature.

It was widely reported that the grocery bags available following the ban were of inferior strength requiring the use of double bagging to perform the task of a single HDPE bag used before. Sixty-seven percent of the consumers interviewed in the research had pointed out this issue, while 74 percent of the supermarkets had reported higher bag consumption than before. According to manufacturers of grocery bags, compared to the previously used HDPE, currently used LDPE-based bags were not only of lower strength, but also incurred a higher production cost while also being more difficult to recycle after use.

A similar issue was raised with regard to new lunch sheets by 74 percent of the food vendors surveyed. They complained that these lunch sheets were easily damaged leading to leaking of wrapped food while also making the wrapping process more difficult compared to the polythene sheets used before.

The quality of new grocery bags had resulted in an apparent increase in polythene bag use. The higher price of alternative products for grocery bags and lunch sheets has made the shift to more eco-friendly options less attractive. The ban appeared to have resulted in the exact opposite of what was intended. Therefore, it is not surprising that 60 percent of those interviewed in this study considered the polythene ban to be a failure. Only 20 percent was of the opinion that it was effective.