Mumbaikars have embraced the plastic ban, albeit with some rants and complaints about the inconvenience it has caused in their lives.
When Maharashtra government first introduced the ban and consequently implemented it about 15 days ago, there was a lot of hue and cry from plastic manufacturers, small business owners as well as retailers, but the public chose not to join in.
Instead, after the ban came into effect from 23 June 2018, people have started carrying their own tiffin boxes to fish and meat markets, housing societies have hung notifications asking residents to discard the use of plastic garbage bags, everyone is somehow dealing with their dripping wet umbrellas in the monsoon, and trying to use cloth bags (despite the rains) for their grocery shopping.
Although, while every now and then, one may spot a guy sauntering down the pavement with a packet of plastic in his hand, it seems that overnight everyone else has disposed off their stash of plastic bags, that they once used to hoard.
Mumbai, it seems, is slowly moving away from single-use plastic.
While it is good news, this adjustment period had been difficult for many.
*Seema, a 60-year-old woman, who works as a house help, carries her ID card and bank passbook in her handbag at all times. She tells me, "I live in a slum, I cannot leave all my valuables at home. What if someone breaks in and steals them?"
Seema, who moved from Bongaon, West Bengal to Mumbai almost forty years ago, said that during the last four decades of monsoon she had been in the city, she would wrap all her IDs and passbook in multiple plastic bags, before keeping them in her sling bag. "That way, all my important documents would stay safe even if my bag got wet," she said.
But, the recent plastic ban has put her in a precarious position. To begin with, she cannot tell the difference between single-use plastic bags, and other kinds of plastic bags but she informs me that if she is caught using ANY plastic bag she will be fined. "Paanch Hajjar rupiya... mera toh tankha hi utna hai" (five thousand rupees, that's how much I make per month). Since she cannot risk getting fined, after receiving her July's salary, she bought a waterproof pouch bag for Rs 500 instead of buying her medicines for the month. "Mere ko shanti toh hoga ki mera kagaj saab thik mafik rahega." (At least, I will be at peace now, knowing that my documents will stay safe in the rain.) She tells me with a sigh of relief.
Yesterday, while purchasing mangoes, I saw a mango seller lose out two potential customers because he did not have plastic carry bags to give the mangoes in. When I asked him if this was happening regularly after the ban had come into effect, he informed me there are several fruit sellers who are still giving plastic bags, which is why he is losing out on business. But, instead of sounding disheartened, he said optimistically, "Ab toh sab band hone wala hai, bas kuch dino ki baat hai woh bhi plastic kahan se denge?" (All this will end soon. After a few days, from where will they supply plastic to customers?)
Despite his current losses, he seemed to welcome the ban happily. "Kam se kam kachchra toh kam hoga, Bombai barish mein kachchra ugalta hai, bas marta hai. Rehna mushkil ho jata hai," he said (At least the amount of garbage will reduce. Mumbai spews garbage in monsoon, it stinks. It becomes hard to live here).
Despite the momentary discomfort in adjusting to a world free of single-use plastic bags, Mumbaikars seem to be adapting quickly. BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation), on the other hand, has been on its toes, wearing monsoon boots, to see that the ban gets implemented.
The fines are high indeed for violators of the plastic ban. Five thousand for first-time offenders, Rs 10,000 for second-timers and Rs 25,000 including a three-month jail term for third-time offenders. But, BMC is being reasonable. One BMC official said, that they are initially targeting only bulk traders and shopkeepers, instead of end users.
"The end users have realized what environmental hazards plastic causes and have started accepting the ban, but the traders, are still uncomfortable and they form a major chunk," said Kiran Dighavkar, the assistant municipal commissioner.
"They are not willing to accept the ban and these frequent talks of traders or other representatives with the government has led to confusion, among many people about what is banned and what is not. Therefore, recently, Maharashtra Pollution Control Board has released a booklet, showing the pictorial representations of what items are banned," he added.
Dighavkar said that approximately 150 metric tons of plastic has been recollected and they have set up door-to-door plastic pick-up vans to help Mumbaikars dispose off their plastic.
BMC's deputy commissioner, Nidhi Choudhari addresses the ban at its root. "Even though we are fighting the violators, our focus is to make public aware of the plastic notifications," said Choudhari.
"In every ward, there are some awareness activities taking place...For plastic carry bags at least we have received a very positive response from the citizens." she added. From BMC's side, Choudhari said meetings were being arranged with retailers as well as trade associations. In some stray incidents, they also faced opposition but they were few and far between; most people were willing to comply.
So far, approximately 55,000 shops have been inspected, out of which 500 places have been fines, out of which legal cases have been filed in almost 50 instances. The numbers keep changing each day.
Unfortunately, despite the public's willingness to comply with the ban, the biggest wall everyone has been coming up against, is the lack of affordable alternatives. In some cases, where affordable alternatives are actually available — for example, corn-starch bags, can easily replace single-use plastic — the manufacturing of such products is very limited.
No large-scale manufacturing has started yet. With the implementation of the ban, the whole state has been forced to not use plastic at all. The demand for alternatives has skyrocketed overnight, but the government has not taken substantial steps to match that demand.
Amid all this, there is also a lot of confusion about which alternatives to actually opt for, which of them are more environmentally friendly choices. Questions such as are paper straws healthy options have been doing rounds.
Anand Pendharkar, the founder of SPROUTS and an ecologist, said that trusting glass-look alike material or cloth-like fabric as alternatives to plastic may not also be the best idea.
"There is glass look-alike material which has come in, which actually has more than 40 per cent plastic in them. So, it is just an eyewash, to replace plastic with glass look-alike material. These products too will turn into microplastics and get into our soil and water and food. That's again another thing that one needs to consider," said Pendharkar.
Pendharkar said that despite being an environmentalist who has been advocating against plastic consumption for 15 years, he thinks the ban seems like an 'ad hoc' and 'fairly unplanned' step, given that public has suddenly found themselves with minimum alternatives to switch to. Moreover, he suggests, what we needed was an awareness drive, like the polio drive, to make people aware of why they should stop using plastic, instead of forcing them with a ban.
"The ban also seems to be imposing a lot of pressure on the common person but at the same time letting larger companies, and industrial packaging get away with it very easily," the ecologist pointed out.
"Also, I feel that a lot of recollection and conversion option needs to be considered. Now people are talking about making fuel from plastic, people are talking about making roads from it, but what they don't realize is, plastic is hazardous in production, it is hazardous in fuels as well as in recycling process," he added.
Shaunak Modi, a member of Marine Life of Mumbai, said infrastructure is where government should first invest if they don't want people to litter plastic. "BMC recently asked us to segregate our plastic waste from biodegradable trash, but then they all get emptied into the same truck. Then what's the point? If you are not going to have the entire system in place, then why to implement a ban in such haste?" asked Modi.
Modi added, "Personally, I don't think bans work. They temporarily work, but they are not permanent solutions...It is great to have a ban in place, but how are you going to implement it? Or regulate this ban? You haven't stopped the manufacture of plastic or regulated that. How are you going to make sure that no plastic bags reach the market two months from now?"
Another problem with the ban that business owners have been pointing out is that the tenants of this ban are still unclear.
Deb Mukherjee, who owns Pan of Asia, a virtual restaurant that delivers food in several parts of Mumbai said, "When we are delivering food, especially gravy based food, plastic boxes become crucial because they don't leak. The kind of plastic boxes we use is actually reusable. Unfortunately, the government has been totally unclear in their directive of what is banned. They have put a blanket ban on all plastic containers. For the first few days of the ban, we didn't even know if our food containers were legal or not. We checked with the BMC, we checked with other authorities. Some said since it is reusable, it is legal, while others said that since it is plastic it isn't legal. So, there is no clarity in what's allowed and what is not."
Mukherjee said once the ban came into effect, he stopped using several plastic products that he discovered were redundant anyway. All the plastic cutlery that was sent out with delivery boxes were seldom used, single-use plastic bags, as well as straws, were easily dispensable.
However, he explained, "The challenge that we are facing today is that the alternatives of plastic that is available are exuberantly priced and the customers are not willing to pay that price. In the food business, where the profit margins are really low, absorbing that cost on our own really hurts."
"The government has also banned the lid on coffee cups. Now, Starbucks has started using a biodegradable lid. They import these from China in big volumes, so they have the product but most of us in the market do not have any access to these products because there is no one in the market who supplies them," added Mukherjee.
Mr Hiten Bheda, President of The All India Plastics Manufacturers' Association said, "We are admitting that there is a pollution problem and it is an eyesore. We need to address that. But, an effective solution could be proper waste management rules enforcement."
"The central government has laid down those laws. If we follow them the visible pollution will reduce automatically. But instead of addressing the root cause, we are trying to thin the industry altogether. We are saying that this is not a sustainable solution." he added. Since the ban has been implemented, according to MPCB's survey, 265 factories which used to manufacture now banned plastic products have shut shops, which has cost many jobs.
However, despite the job cuts, financial losses, as well as the personal inconveniences that the plastic ban may have caused, it seems like it is here to stay and the credit for it goes to Mumbaikars, more than the Maharashtra government or BMC. Mumbaikars have not just passively accepted the directives of the government imposed ban but are also actively participating in implementing it. Housing societies are organizing funeral of plastic wastes, and chicken delivery walas are sending in home deliveries in neatly packed aluminium foiled. Who knew we would ever see such a day?
Almost two months back, I spoke to Afroz Shah, a lawyer from Versova, who spearheaded the largest beach clean-up drive in Mumbai. Back then, talks were going on about implementing the plastic ban. When I asked him what he thought of the ban he said he dislikes the term 'ban' because it goes against our right to choose.
He told me, "More than awareness, I think a small tweak has not happened in people's head. I will tell you, they are aware that plastic is bad...but, the question is who will get to that moment where he will say, 'okay, I will start doing something about it?"
"I'm a lawyer, and from my experience, I know that law, regulations or court orders cannot tell people what to do with their lives, especially in the case of the environment. We ourselves should become conscious. Ban or a regulatory framework can only supplement your efforts,” he had added.
Shah was right. There are many states in India that had previously tried to implement a partial or complete ban on plastic use but failed. Maharashtra, on the other hand, is already looking into implement buyback scheme for PET bottles, after just a little over 15 days of the stern plastic ban. The tweak that Shah was talking about has happened indeed, where not one individual but an entire state has been nudged into taking action against its plastic waste. That's why perhaps this plastic ban seems to work because it breaks the status quo bias of the public towards plastic.
(*Names have been changed on request)