Mumbai: The Maharashtra government on 23 March had decided to ban a variety of plastic products, including single-use disposable items. The implementation of this prohibition will begin from 23 June, but it is business as usual for local shopkeepers and owners of eateries across the state, who continue to give away plastic bags and single-use items, such as straws.
While a plastic-free environment sounds ideal, the lack of alternatives to banned products and threat to the livelihoods of hundreds appears to make the state and its government unprepared for an upcoming change.
The government order had given manufacturers, distributors, retailers and consumers a period of three months to dispose of their existing stock of banned items. Those found using plastic, including retailers, are to be penalised Rs 5,000 on the first occasion and Rs 10,000 the second time. Third-time offenders will be prosecuted.
Representational image. AFP
With a population of over 112 million inhabitants, the government's breakthrough resolution is hugely significant. According to an assessment by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for the year 2015-16, 24 Indian states had produced 15.8 lakh tons/annum of plastic waste, with Maharashtra alone generating 4.6 lakh tons. This, the report suggests, was at the time when there was already a partial ban on plastic bags in a few districts of the state.
The Maharashtra government, on 8 June, had told the Bombay High Court that it has instituted a special task force comprising of plastic manufacturers' associations, government officials and experts to oversee implementation of the prohibition. While the city seems to be gearing for the ban, the on-ground views point at multiple loopholes that can result in the downfall of this landmark decision.
Dilution of ban
The government order has put an effective stop on the manufacture, usage, sale, transport, distribution, wholesale and retail sale, storage, import of plastic bags with or without handle, and disposable products made out of plastic and thermocol. But over the course of three months, since the order was passed, this prohibition was revised and diluted several times.
Small PET and PETE bottles with a carrying capacity of less than half a litre were excluded. Later, authorities also exempted plastic bags used for packaging of medicines and compostable plastic bags used for horticulture, solid waste and plant nurseries.
Environmentalists in the state believe that the ban's purpose has been nullified given the several dilutions imposed on it. "The initial notification was a step in the right direction but it has been watered down multiple times following industry pressure and effective implementation strategies. Even if a ban is hard to implement and cannot be a 100 percent success, I would rather have a 50 percent implementation of a very strong notification than a 100 percent implementation of a notification with a really weak objective. The adverse effects of plastic on our environment cannot be ignored by citing job losses and closure of manufacturing units," said Janjri Jasani, head of sustainability services, Centre for Environmental Research and Education (CERE), Mumbai.
Ban not pragmatic but ambiguous
Viren Shah, president of the Federation of Retail Traders Welfare Association (FRTWA), said, "The government has informed us that we will not be fined for using plastic covers if the goods have been packaged that way by manufacturers. It is not clear how authorities will differentiate between plastic packaging that is received from manufacturers or those done by retailers. Officials are clueless about it and the government has not provided any durable alternative to plastics."
Citing the example of Taiwan, which has proposed a 12-year-period to impose a blanket ban on single-use plastic, Hiten Bheda, president, All India Plastics Manufacturers' Association (AIPMA), said, "While the order may have earned a lot of kudos from people, the ban seems to be discriminatory. The government has prohibited plastics used in polypropylene bags " used for packaging food items, including liquids and food grains " which are mostly used by small traders. But it has not banned plastics made up of laminated multi-layered packaging used by big companies for wrapping wafers and other food items,"
Such an exemption, said industry patrons, throws light on the loopholes in this order. Bheda also said that while normal plastic bags are recycled, the multi-layered ones are not feasible for recycling.
Where are alternatives to plastics?
Weeks after the ban, the state government had formed several committees to look at suggestions given by plastic manufacturers about its recycling as well as substitutes for it. But the authorities have failed to find replacements till now. "There is no doubt that plastics add to environmental degradation and trigger blocks in drainage systems. But how are we to sustain our businesses? I deal in snacks and whatever I prepare has to be covered with plastics to increase its shelf life," said Ajit Mota, president, Snack Food Association of Maharashtra and also the founder of 'Mota Chips'.
While several industry players are willing to work with the government to demonstrate how plastic waste can be managed more effectively, AIPMA president Bheda said it was "not right" on the part of civic authorities to obligate producers and manufacturers to come up with substitutes. "We produce things. Why do we have to look for alternatives to plastic when it is the duty of civic bodies?" he asked.
Anti-plastic crusaders getting little support
Seventy-year-old Ila Jatar's name crops up in the list of jute/paper/cloth bag manufacturers released by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) on its website. Jatar, along with her friends Daksha Paranjape, Dilip Paranjape and Jaya Dandekar, had started an initiative to ban plastic in the Vile Parle market areas on 14 April last year.
"We wanted to help the society in any small way that we could. We involved women from a tribal community of Palghar area and taught them to make paper bags. But as an enterprise, it has not been profitable. We want to help the government in its attempt to stop plastic usage. However, it has to help us too," said Jatar.
"We have to spend Rs 4,000 from our pockets each time we travel to the village. It is not feasible. There has to be proactive funding from the government's end. The only contribution from BMC's side has been an exhibition showcasing alternatives to plastic, which is to take place between 22-24 June," she added.
Catherine Philips, who runs a small paper and cloth-making business and has her name on the list said that she has not even been made aware of the exhibition. "There is little support from the BMC. I am doing all this out of my own pocket," she added.
This is not the first time that the Maharashtra government has imposed a ban on plastics. According to the Maharashtra Non-Biodegradable (Control) Act, 2006, the use of plastic bags less than 50 microns is prohibited in the state. But the reason for its ineffectiveness, as CERE's Jasani pointed out, was the government's decision to work in isolation and not include community efforts for its implementation.
The author is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.