A plastic ban

Print edition :

Plastic materials seized by officials of the Nagpur Municipal Corporation following the ban on plastic in Maharashtra. Photo: PTI

The Maharashtra government’s ban on plastic may be well-intentioned but has been launched without adequate protocols, proper education of the public or assured availability of alternatives.

 On July 26, 2005, Mumbai was hit by a freak meteorological phenomenon—a combination of an offshore vortex and a cloud column about 15 km high—that dumped thousands of tonnes of rainwater on the city. The ensuing chaos was disastrous. There was severe flooding in which people died and property was lost. The blame could be laid squarely at the unplanned and rampant development, an ancient sewer and drainage system in desperate need of an upgrade, the deliberate and illegal blockage of the many small rivers in and around the city, and clogged gutters, drains and sewers. The floods occurred simply because the water, literally, had no place to go. 

After it was all over and it came to giving an explanation, the government had its back to the wall. Largely ignoring the main reason of illegal constructions and a corrupt municipality, the government chose to focus blame on plastic waste for the flooding. And so it happened that the long-pending issue of plastic manufacture, use and disposal finally got the attention it deserved. The government’s immediate reaction was to say that all plastic bags would be banned under the Maharashtra Non-Biodegradable Garbage Control Act, but a compromise settlement allowed bags of 50 microns or more, and of a size measuring more than 8x12 inches. Violations would face penalties of between Rs. 5,000 and Rs. 25,000. Representatives from the plastic manufacturing industry promised to adhere to manufacturing standards and also said a system of plastic recycling and disposal would be implemented, including that of using it in road construction. As it turned out, these promises did not last long, just like an earlier ban in 1999 imposed by the Centre in which the Recycled Plastics Manufacture and Usage Rules of 1999 forbade the production of bags less than 25 microns. 

The 2018 ban came about because plastic waste was again blamed for waterlogging after heavy rains in the 2017 monsoon. Yuva Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray raised the issue of plastic production and waste and the Shiv Sena’s Ramdas Kadam, who is the State Minister for Environment, promised that the ban would come into effect this year. On March 23, the Maharashtra Plastic and Thermocol Products (Manufacture, Usage, Sale, Transport, Handling and Storage) Notification, 2018, imposed immediate State-wide restrictions on the manufacturing, usage, storage, distribution, wholesale and retail sale, import and transportation of all kinds of plastic bags (with or without handle), straw, non-woven polypropylene bags, plastic sheets, plastic pouches, all kinds of plastic films and disposable cutlery items made of plastics (polystyrene) such as plates, cups, glass, bowls, forks and spoons. Environmental and public health risks and harm caused to wild and domestic animals were also cited as the reason for the ban.

The most prominent feature of this ban is the incorporation of “Extended Producers and Sellers/Traders Responsibility”. Among the exempted items are food grade virgin plastic milk pouches and PET bottles. To promote collection, reuse and recycling of such items, a Buy Back Depository system has been suggested to the traders. Purchasers have to pay a deposit which they can reclaim on returning the bottle or plastic pouch. The onus of establishing the buy-back schemes is on producers, retailers and traders, who are to ensure that it is done within three months of the regulation being published. The development of environment-friendly alternatives has also been made their responsibility. Defaulters face penalties ranging from Rs.5,000 to Rs.25,000 and even a three-month term in jail. 

But despite the well-intentioned efforts of the government, there is no doubt that there is a dearth of alternatives on offer and a lack of systems in place to disseminate information on all aspects of the ban, such as recycling and reuse. This is why soon after the ban the government agreed to the demand of trade associations to step back a bit and allow small shops to continue their use of plastic for packaging products. In effect, the ban is a ragged one at present and its implementation protocol needs better planning. Part of the failure is the huge unwillingness on the part of the public to give up the convenience of plastic. Though the 2005 ban was not particularly effective, it was still in existence and Mumbai municipal officers carried out raids from time to time. In 2017, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) said that from 2015 to 2017, 4,805 kg of banned plastic had been seized, 3,158 cases of violation had been registered and fines amounting to Rs.1.5 crore had been collected. 

Given that even a simple practice such as dry and wet waste segregation has met with resistance, the call to move towards a plastic-free environment is being viewed as draconian by many. Also it is common to not bother with the effort of recycling. The government is considering setting up many collection centres for ease of deposit. Possible answers seem to lie in a combination solution that includes manufacture, disposal and reuse of plastic. A complete clampdown on thin plastic, promotion of multiple-use plastic, an efficient plastic recycling system that citizens can access with ease and an effective waste disposal system are all being carried out. The task is obviously immense, considering that the city generates about 8,000 tonnes of waste a day, 3-5 per cent of which is plastic. 

Plastic industry 

There is also the aspect of the plastic industry as a major contributor to the economy. The Maharashtra Plastic Manufacturers Association says the plastic sector in Maharashtra contributes to about 30 per cent of the GDP. Of the total volume of products from the plastic industry in Maharashtra, which is worth about Rs.50,000 crore, as much as Rs.5,000 crore is contributed by products that come under the ban. These products contribute Rs.800 crore in GST to the State from their sale. So both the State and the plastic industry will take a beating. Employment, too, will bear the brunt with an estimated 2,150 units being forced to close. About 60,000 people are employed in the State in the making of plastic bags and 200,000 people are involved in related plastic product manufacturing. 

The government gave manufacturers and retailers a three-month heads-up in which they could seek modifications to the ban, develop alternatives to plastic, dispose of existing stock and so on. On June 23, the ban was enforced. Blue Squads of the municipality—specially trained employees wearing blue jackets—moved all over the city, educating citizens, confiscating plastic and fining businesses that still used plastic. Many feel the ban is unrealistic and that the main focus should not be on stopping production but rather on improving plastic waste recovery and recycling technologies. 

To sum up, the ban, though well-meaning and necessary, was launched at the wrong time—the monsoon is when there is much need of plastic. It has also been launched without adequate protocols and education of the public. The most damaging aspect is that it has been launched without offering a range of alternatives. In this scenario, it is unfortunate that a long-awaited ban may be diluted.