Improper management of solid waste leads to degradation of the quality of soil, air, and water (Das et al., 2019). In the South Asian region, plastic in the form of bags, bottles, packaging, etc., represents the third highest proportion of municipal solid waste. The most desirable action in this regard is to reduce the waste from its source by changing consumption patterns (World Bank, 2012). Mass consumption patterns gave rise to the mass utilization of single-use plastic bags. These cheap, lightweight, and disposable bags are not essential to the product itself, but act as a supplementary aide (Durak, 2016). However convenient to individual users, the single-use plastic bags have become an environmental threat, mainly due to the duration and nature of their decomposition. Plastic bags can take hundreds of years to decompose, and most of the plastics do not biodegrade; they break into smaller particles known as micro plastics which cause many environmental and health hazards when they are deposited in water or soil. Burning of plastics also releases harmful gases into the air. The production of plastic also relies on unsustainable, non-renewable sources of energy. Despite the huge environmental cost of plastic, from its production to decomposition, only 9% of the plastic ever produced has been recycled; the rest continues to pollute the environment (United Nations Environment Programme, 2018).
Recognizing the threat that single-use plastics pose to the environment, many countries have adopted several policies such as taxes, levies, incentives for using alternative cloth bags, awareness campaigns, and bans to discourage the use of plastic bags (Rayne, 2008). The United Nations recognizes the importance of the consumption patterns of the general public in goal number 12 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and aspires to make them more sustainable (United Nations General Assembly, 2015), therefore policies such as awareness campaigns, incentives for alternate-bag use and some levies are targeted towards consumers of these plastic bags. However partial or complete bans on single-use plastic bags and imposing levies are the most commonly adopted policies around the world (Xanthos & Walker, 2017). The rationale provided for imposing bans and levies is the modification of consumer behavior towards more sustainable consumption patterns (Jakovcevic et al., 2014; Ritch et al., 2009). The case of the Irish levy on plastic bags is hailed as a success story. The extensive working behind the implementation and acceptance of the policy, integration of all stakeholders, providing provisions in exceptional cases, and, most importantly, promoting pro-environment behaviors through public awareness campaigns led to the levy producing the desirable results (Convery et al., 2007). Consumer perception and motivation regarding the initiatives do not just influence the acceptance of the policy, but also effect the sustainability of the action (Jakovcevic et al., 2014). Effective enforcement and consumer co-operation lie at the heart of the success of any measure taken to reduce plastic bag usage (Kish, 2018).
Pakistan, a developing country in South Asia, has the sixth largest population in the world (Rahman, 2013) and the fastest pace of urbanization in the region (Kugelman, 2013) both of which have been associated with increased solid waste generation (Chen, 2018; Senzige & Makinde, 2016). On average 1.896 kg to 4.29 kg of waste is generated per household per day in some of the major cities of Pakistan of which 31% to 49% remains uncollected (Mahar et al., 2007). Solid waste is composed of both biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. The non-biodegradable waste includes plastics, rubber, metals, etc. Single-use plastic bags have posed multi-faceted environmental threats in Pakistan. A study conducted in Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab, highlighted that nearly three-quarters of the waste left in the communal containers after the extraction of recyclable materials was plastic shopping bags (Masood et al., 2014). These plastic bags block sewers and provide a breeding ground for various diseases (Umer et al., 2018) and when broken down in the form of microplastics, affect the source of fresh water causing a threat to both aquatic organisms and the people consuming that water (Irfan et al., 2020). Keeping in mind the hazardous effects of the single-use plastic bags, the then provincial government of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa banned the manufacturing and usage of these bags and imposed a heavy fine on the violation of the ban in 2017 (Umer et al., 2018). On winning the general elections of 2018, the same political party (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) took multiple pro-environmental initiatives, one of which included a ban on the usage and manufacturing of the single-use plastic bags in the capital city territory (GoP, 2019). The ban was later expanded to other major cities of the province including Lahore, Gujranwala, Faisalabad, Multan, etc.
As highlighted in the case of the Irish levy, the success of such policies depends on the participation and acceptance of all stakeholders which facilitates the efficient enforcement of regulations. A study conducted in Bangladesh, one of the first countries to impose a ban on plastic bags in 2002 (Clapp & Swanston, 2009), highlighted that despite the ban, the availability and usage of plastic bags remained common among both consumers and retailers. The most highlighted reason by consumers for this usage was the low cost of these bags and among retailers the lack of availability of alternative materials was the factor behind the re-emergence of plastic bags (Uddin et al., 2018). Presumably they continued to be manufactured, which means that the ban was also not policed effectively. In this regard, the government of Bangladesh enacted a law called the Mandatory Jute Packaging Act 2010 to present jute as an alternative packaging solution for both consumers and retailers. Another study conducted in Delhi, India highlighted the same trend. There was no proper enforcement of the ban or information regarding the legal and social cost of using plastic bags but interventions like awareness, cashback schemes, pricing plastic bags and making available the alternative solution to packaging positively influenced the consumer behavior, encouraging them to bring their own bags (Gupta, 2011). Despite satisfactory awareness among consumers regarding the environmental consequences of plastic bags, their use was not significantly reduced in the Tamil Nadu state of India as well (Sujitha et al., 2019).
Since the ban in Pakistan is recent compared to its neighboring countries, it is of crucial importance to understand the perceptions of the consumers regarding the banning policy of the government to make it sustainable. The majority of the studies conducted on this topic, in the South Asia region are quantitative in nature (Agyeman & Badugu, 2017; Bharadwaj, 2016; Bharadwaj et al., 2020; Sujitha et al., 2019; Uddin et al., 2018), the present study aims to explore the perception of the consumers in-depth therein uncovering the factors which shape perceptions, something a quantitative methodology is unable to shed light on. The gap between acceptance and enforcement of the policy can be well understood with an in-depth exploration, from a consumer’s point of view, of not just the policy itself, but of the enforcement mechanisms as well, which ensure successful implementation of laws.
Consumers and governments are two sides of the same coin while promoting sustainable consumer patterns, but the former has received more attention than the latter when it comes to the plastic bag ban policy. Much of the literature available on the topic revolves around the behaviors of the consumers and how they can be modified and explained (Arı & Yılmaz, 2017a; Madara et al., 2016; Mogomotsi et al., 2019; Mokhtar et al., 2019; Nurulhaq & Kismartini, 2019; Sobaya et al., 2018). Behavioral theories such as the Theory of Planned Behavior (Arı & Yılmaz, 2017b; Chang & Chou, 2018; Mayangsari, 2020; Muralidharan & Sheehan, 2016), Learning Theory (Jakovcevic et al., 2014)the Theory of Normative social behavior (Borg et al., 2020) and Nudge Theory (Alameddine, 2020; Lim, 2020) have been at the heart of most explanations. A few studies, however, have focused on the other side of the coin, placing the study of plastic bags ban in the political ecology framework (Njeru, 2006). The argument for understanding the politics of a plastic bag ban is that governance of the population is crucial to the transformation of their behaviors towards sustainability (Patterson et al., 2017). In this light, the present study aims to employ the Foucauldian concept of Governmentality (Valdivia, 2015). Governmentality is a concept attributed to Michel Foucault, a French philosopher of the 20th century. Combining governance with rationality, Foucault explains governmentality as a form of governance through a range of practices which ultimately lead the actors towards governing themselves. As opposed to the use of force, governmentality uses reasoning and a range of discourses to tap in to the thinking and choices of those being governed (Dean, 2017) in order to disseminate a morality which an individual internalizes and uses to shape their thoughts and actions (Abdulwakeel & Bartholdson, 2018). Foucault calls these the techniques of governance which make the governance itself “thinkable” and “practicable” (Anderson, 1998). Such techniques lead to sustainable behavioral changes because the change, though initiated externally, takes root in the rationalities of the individuals and appears to be coming from internal volition (Agrawal, 2005). Thus, for Foucault, the government’s operation was not about enforcing law on citizens, but about molding the behaviors of citizens to behave in required ways: that is, using techniques rather than laws, and also using laws themselves, as tactics, in order to organize activities in such a way that certain ends can be accomplished by a certain number of means (Foucault, 1979/2000). The present study employs this meaning of the techniques of governance to understand how consumers perceive the ban on plastic bags and how effectively they reflect upon the rationality of the government which led to this law. In short, the present study aims to understand the efficiency of governmentality in case of the plastic bags ban in Pakistan and how well it is translated into the behavior of the consumers.
To meet the objectives of the research, a cross-sectional study was conducted adopting a qualitative approach. Fifteen interviews were conducted with university students in Lahore, selected through a convenience sampling technique. This was to assess their perception regarding the ban on plastic bags. The rationale for selecting university students was that the young consumers are not just the generation who have experienced the market pre- and post- ban but they also have more awareness regarding the environmental issues, which makes them the future agents of change (Gurtner & Soyez, 2016) and also possible agents of resistance,. Therefore, it is very important to understand how the young consumers perceive the ban and how they understand the rationality of the government behind this step. The interview guide, informed by the theoretical framework, is attached as Appendix A.
Since the aim of the present study was to provide an in-depth understanding of people’s perceptions and experiences of the ban on plastic bags and use of eco-friendly bags for shopping, a small sample size is not viewed as a limitation owing to the nature of qualitative research (Carminati, 2018). It may be possible to make a theoretical case that the findings are transferable to other/wider populations.
One-on-one interviews were planned for the research but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lockdown was imposed on the city during the data collection phase. So, telephone interviews, lasting approximately 30 minutes, were conducted with each respondent. The calls were recorded with the permission of all respondents which helped in the transcription process. Most interviews conducted were either in Urdu language or bi-lingual, and were later translated into English during transcription. Thematic analysis was performed starting with the coding of the transcripts which led to the formulation of categories and themes.
Informed consent was acquired from all of the participants, and confidentiality of the data was also ensured. The participants were ensured that their voice recordings would be permanently deleted after the complete transcription of the interviews, and no copies of the recording would be made without their consent. They were further assured that their recordings would not be shared with anyone except the researchers working on the research project.
Thematic analysis was performed starting with the coding of the transcripts which led to the formulation of categories and themes. A few themes were based on the a priori codes which were evident in the questions, but most of the themes were based on in vivo codes which emerged from the data (Elliott, 2018).
Eight of fifteen respondents were male. Most respondents in the study had completed their undergraduate education and were either pursuing further studies or were working in different professional fields. The following is the analysis of the themes that were observed in the data.
Shopping Bag Practices
Most of the respondents, while describing their shopping bag practices, divided their shopping in to two categories, based on the product, and explained their shopping bag preferences according to this categorization. For groceries, a majority of the respondents preferred taking cloth bags from home. For non-grocery shopping, like garments, shoes, etc., the respondents did not take bags from home and relied on the bags that the retailers provided them.
I go shopping for grocery and clothes. When I am going to purchase clothes, I use the paper bags, given by the retailers, which are beautifully prepared with calligraphy on them. So, all the brands give their own bags that are made from the hard paper. When I go grocery shopping, most grocery stores provide cotton bags or sometimes they even ask us to bring our own bags for the groceries. Previously they used to provide plastic bags.
Due to the ban, most markets were offering only cloth bags or paper bags, and an amount was charged for these bags every time the customer went shopping. The respondents expressed that initially this practice of paying for the bag was difficult to accept, but with the passage of time, it became part of their shopping practices.
At the start I had the habit of using the plastic bags. The cloth bags used to tear or become wet. For a month, it was a problem, adapting to the change, but now it’s a part of our life.
Another respondent shared their experience, saying:
When we go to shop for clothes, they [the retailers] give us paper bags or cloth bags. If we go to purchase shoes, then they give us paper bags, which are very beautiful. It depends on us whether we need alternative bags or not. If we need then, we have to pay for these bags. At the start, I found the idea of paying for the bags difficult, but slowly I adopted it.
Most of the respondents explained that the reason behind bringing their own bags from home was the unavailability of plastic bags due to the ban.
I mostly prefer the leather, cotton, and paper bags for shopping. Basically, in my area, the plastic bags are banned. So, we have to bring our own bag from home for shopping.
Another respondent mentioned the same reason for their practices.
I mostly use the cloth bag for shopping and take it from my home, because in my area plastic bags are strictly banned.
So, the ban itself and the charge for the alternate bags together are changing the consumption patterns of the respondents. However, one respondent expressed reasons other than this for preferring alternate bags.
I prefer the alternative bags because it is good for our health and environment.
Awareness of the Alternative Bags and the Ban
The respondents were asked about their awareness of the ban and the alternative bags and also the sources of this awareness. Some of the respondents had become aware of the alternate bags long before the ban. They had a passing experience once or twice with the alternate bags, but it never became part of their routine shopping practices. Most of the respondents highlighted that they started favoring the alternative bags once they learned about the negative impacts of plastic bags. One respondent remarked,
Mostly alternative bags were used by my father. I have seen them around my house since childhood but before the ban I didn’t know much about these bags. I only knew that these bags existed. Once I got to know about the importance of these bags, I started believing that they are the best choice.
Another respondent shared this sentiment saying,
Three years back I went to a well-renowned brand’s shop in a mall, and they gave me a cloth bag. That was my first experience of using alternative bags. At that time I did not know about these bags and don’t know the effect of the plastic on the environment, and so my reaction was neutral. Then I researched this topic and learned about the issue, and then I was happy about its use.
This finding resonates with the findings presented by Agyeman and Badugu from India. They have highlighted that environmental knowledge has a positive relationship with a consumer’s pro-environment attitude (Agyeman & Badugu, 2017). However attitudes do not necessarily translate into practice if the attitude-related information is not reiterated (Glasman & Albarracín, 2006).
The other strategies of the governments, like using news and campaigns did make the people aware, but it could not prompt action as e as the ban. This was highlighted by many respondents.
Mostly I found out from social media and the news that there is a ban from the government and a strict requirement to use the alternative bags. But when we go to the stores where they give us an alternative bag, then we know that the government is taking this issue seriously.
First, I saw the news that a law had passed about using these bags. After some time I saw this practically when I went for the groceries and they gave me a cotton bag instead of a plastic bag.
One of the respondents highlighted that lack of implementation of the ban can reduce action in an individual capacity.
When the ban was implemented, I took my own bag from the home, but when I saw very few people following it, after some days, I started using plastic shopping bags again, but I think after this conversation I will start using alternative bags again.
This shows that people need constant reminders and reinforcements to use the alternative bags, and a ban is an effective step when it is implemented properly. The manifestation of the awareness regarding the harms of plastic bags became evident to the respondents through the ban and the seriousness of the government in this regard also led them to take the issue seriously.
Rationality of the Government
To explore how the respondents made sense of the step taken by the government, the respondents were asked to reflect upon their perceptions regarding the motive of the government behind the ban. They were also asked to give their opinion regarding the step, whether they welcomed or disapproved of the initiative.
All respondents unanimously highlighted the environmental degradation caused by the plastic bags as the sole motive of the government behind the ban. However, different respondents highlighted different aspects of the environmental degradation like marine pollution, soil pollution, air pollution, etc. The following quotations represent the sentiments of the respondents.
Plastic bags are the cause of increasing environment pollution. They do not decompose and affect our marine life and in the soil they have chemical reactions. So, this is a big reason behind the ban.
The main purpose of banning the plastic bags is that they are not good for the environment. In Pakistan, we mostly dump the used plastic bags and do not recycle them. When we burn the plastic, they create toxic gases that are dangerous for us. There is a lot of pollution in our country. They [plastic bags] cause air pollution. In the future it would be difficult to breathe in the polluted environment, so it is good that our environment is protected from pollution.
It is obvious that plastic bags are harmful for us and also for the environment. There is no infrastructure for recycling in our country. So, the step of the plastic bag ban is very good. It is also best for our marine life. We have to think about those. Plus our sanitation system is badly damaged by plastic. Our sewage system gets totally blocked.
The respondents believed that the ban was imposed for their own betterment. One of the respondents mentioned this in the following words:
The government has imposed the ban on plastic bags for our betterment. They give us alternative bags so that that we reuse them. They want us to quit using plastic bags because mostly plastic is not reused and is thrown out as it is. The plastic bags are not good for animals and other species as well. The basic purpose is that we use the alternate bags and also reuse them. So, according to me, I understand these factors due to which the government has banned plastic bags.
Opinion of the Consumers Regarding the Ban
Most of the respondents viewed the ban as a good initiative and believed that the people should cooperate with the government in this initiative.
This law is a positive initiative. The majority of the developed world has implemented the ban, then why should we not? We are not uneducated. The majority of our population is youth; we should make them aware about this and also encourage them to accept the government law.
This finding is congruent with the findings from India where a majority of the respondents had a positive attitude towards the ban (Sujitha et al., 2019). However, they differ from the findings of the industrialized nations where the acceptance of the ban was not so sweeping due to the role of a strong plastic industry (Clapp & Swanston, 2009).
That being said, quite a few respondents also highlighted some apprehensions regarding the cost of the alternative bags, lack of awareness, weak implementation of the law, and the ban being limited only to plastic bags and not including other forms of plastic.
Basically, the ban is good, but the problem is that we have to see to what extent it is implemented. First, the cost of the alternative bags is affecting the consumer’s pocket. So, if a customer has to pay the price of these bags then I don’t think that this action is very good and would not be long-lasting as well. Not everyone can afford these bags. It affects the poor class; they cannot afford to buy these bags, and mostly our population are poor and middle class. So, if we consider the impact of this decision on the poor and middle class, then this decision is not feasible. I am also concerned about the specific focus on only plastic bags. What about the other things that are made of plastic like ice cream packs, bottles, straw, and snack wrappers? These also cause pollution. What is the government doing with these things? There are a lot of things that are made of plastic, not only shopping bags.
Another respondent voiced their concerns regarding the awareness level of different segments of society and how it might affect the implementation of the ban.
In my opinion, educated people should understand and also try to adopt it. But for an uneducated person who does not know about it and doesn’t have any understanding of the issue behind the ban, it is difficult for those people to adopt it.
Remarking on awareness, another respondent commented:
In my opinion, there is a lack of the awareness among the people. Mostly people are educated but they have no awareness. There is a huge difference between education and awareness. We need to make people aware of this issue. People do not think of the consequences while consuming these bags. So, in my opinion, we have to spread awareness among the people about the issue. The government should also play a role in spreading awareness among people through commercials, banners, ads, or by including the public service message in our textbooks. We have to include an awareness chapter in the textbooks of children to make everyone aware of the seriousness of this issue so that in the future our children are well-aware of it.
However, one of the respondents hinted that only awareness will not be helpful in promoting change. They remarked:
I perceive this initiative is very good. It is for our betterment. It saves our environment from plastic. Plastic is very dangerous and harmful for the environment. If we simply say to people that “plastic is bad and do not use it,” they will not act accordingly. We only understand with strictness.
Role of the Government and Role of the Customers
The respondents were asked to highlight their opinion regarding the role that the governments should play during the ban, and they were also asked to reflect upon the role of consumers for making the effort sustainable.
Role of the Government
Since most of the respondents were in favor of the ban, they also demanded strict implementation of the law by the government along with increased awareness. The respondents believe that the ban would only be successful if there is proper and uniform enforcement of the ban across all low- and high-income areas.
The government should try to impose the law strictly. A fine should be imposed for those who violate the law, so that we have a sense that if we do not follow the law, we have to pay penalty. Secondly, the government should raise awareness about the issue.
If the government only relied on statements, and the law is not strictly enforced, then the ultimate goal would not be achieved.
This finding is consistent with a quantitative study conducted in Nepal which highlighted that the sanctioning system plays a crucial role in the effectiveness of the ban (Bharadwaj et al., 2020). The consumers in the present study demand that sanctions be imposed strictly on both the consumers and the shops. This shows that awareness alone cannot get people to act pro-environmentally.
A few respondents highlighted that the government should also look into the cost of the alternative bags and should try to provide those free of cost, and even if there is a charge, it should be monitored strictly so that the retailers do not overcharge for the alternative bags.
If the government really wants to implement the law then they should provide free bags to the retailors, big shops as well as small shops. Then people would start using these bags. The government should facilitate to help the public adopt the new law. Some people are not in the habit of using these bags. When the bags are common, then these bags are used by everyone.
The government should announce the uniform price of the bags for every shop. No one should be able to charge more than that price. After the implementation of the policy of cost, the government should create checks and balances for the shops. Those who do not follow the uniform price must be punished.
One of the respondents also highlighted that the government should also compensate those who have been affected by the ban.
The government should try to compensate those people who became unemployed because of this decision. The government should give them alternative jobs. Like [plastic bag] factory owners should be helped to convert their business to the paper bags industry.
Role of the Consumers
The respondents highlighted that the consumers play an important role in contributing to a healthy environment in the country. With regards to the ban, the respondents expressed that responsible consumer behavior is the key to successful implementation of such pro-environmental laws, and this responsible behavior is the result of both awareness and efficient execution of the laws.
If consumers do not feel that it’s their own responsibility to use the alternate bags, then the government cannot successfully impose the ban. The government should sensitize the people. So most importantly, we have to take responsibility to adopt these bags and be concerned for the environment.
Most of the consumers also mentioned that bringing their bags from home can contribute significantly in reducing the plastic bags.
The consumer’s role is that we should avoid using the plastic shopping bags for shopping. If the shopkeeper offers us plastic bags, then we should discourage it and demand alternate bags instead. Mostly the consumers should try to bring their own bags from home and should not purchase bags from the shops.
Another respondent highlighted the same sentiments remarking that the consumers have the power to reduce demand of plastic bags so that their manufacturing is reduced.
The basic and important role of the customer is to not to demand the plastic bags. If the customers don’t demand the plastic bags, then their production will definitely be reduced. So, we have to understand it: when the demand is low, then the supply will reduce automatically, and in the future, plastic bags will be totally removed from our society. The government has passed the law, but we have to follow it.
The findings highlight that using responsibilization as a form of governance can prove to be beneficial for promoting compliance (Soneryd & Uggla, 2015).
The theory of governmentality is applied to the findings to understand how the respondents perceived the rationality of the government behind the ban imposed on the usage and manufacturing of plastic bags in Lahore, Pakistan. The empirical findings show that the respondents perceive the government’s action as pro-environment and believe that the government has the best interest of the population at heart while banning plastic bags. In light of the theoretical framework, the present study highlights that the governmentality has been successful in achieving the desired subjectivities among these respondents. The present study also contributes to a conceptual development of the theory, highlighting that the use of law as a technique of governance has proven to be efficient in the case of plastic bags. There was no distrust among the people regarding the intentions of the government behind the law. The law, apparently, might seem as the use of sovereign power, but when the subjects perceive the rationality of the government as positive, that same law is perceived by them as a useful technique to achieve a unanimous end. As the wider aim of the government made sense to the consumers, constructive criticism was built to improve the enforcement of the ban by increasing awareness, reducing cost of the alternative bags, and compensating those who might lose employment due to this ban. This shows that the consumers are willing to participate in the cause but demand the government to be inclusive in its policy by considering the needs of those who are adversely affected by the law. Increasing inclusiveness promotes the responsibilization and enhances compliance, as shown by the case of the Irish levy (Convery et al., 2007).
Limitations and Recommendations
The present study was based on a small sample with specific characteristics. Future research can explore how governmentality is being perceived among the manufacturers and retailers, who are important stakeholders in the distribution of the plastic bags. The lack of compliance by retailers or manufacturers may become a hurdle in sustaining the ban.
The present study aimed to understand the effectiveness of the governmentality behind the ban on plastic bags in Lahore, Pakistan by exploring the perceptions of the consumers regarding the law. The unavailability of plastic bags due to the ban and the charge for cloth bags together altered the shopping practices of the consumers. Media awareness campaigns did make most of the respondents aware of the benefits of alternate bags and the harms of plastic bags, but an important reinforcement came from the implementation of the ban itself. The consumers perceived the law as a good initiative and the rationality of the government behind it was perceived well. It was believed by respondents that the ban was enforced for their own betterment and so they believed it their responsibility to cooperate with the government to reduce the use of plastic bags. The theory of governmentality was applied to the analysis and the use of law as a technique of governance was found to be effective in the case of the pro-environmental step of banning plastic bags.
The findings of this study highlight that environmental policies, such as the ban on plastic bags, are internalized well by the public when the opinion of those for whom the policy is applicable is taken into consideration during the planning and implementation phase. The ultimate success of environmental policies lies in how well they are able to fit within the rationality of the general public.