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Plastic bags: We have reached the crisis point, let’s act

When Dapoli, a small coastal town in Konkan, decided to go free of plastic bags in 2010, there was much preparation. Traders and customers were educated not just on the implications of their carelessness but the very benefits of avoiding plastic bags. On Independence Day traders surrendered their stocks. It weighed all of 10 tonnes.

The population of Dapoli happens to be fewer than 20,000. Apparently being small had its uses. Everyone was connected to everyone else and word of mouth was sufficient to get the message across. Alternative use of cloth bags and paper bags was promoted before the town’s civic body opted for the ban in which everyone cooperated.

AFP

In 2009, Pune decided to ban plastic bags. It led to so much of quibbling that it became tiresome. The plastic trade — those who make and sell them to stores – said the Maharashtra law had mentioned only ‘plastic carry bags’ of less than 50 microns and smaller than 8x12 inches so a blanket ban was thoughtless.

The civic body, it was pointed out, had not prepared an alternative for customer comfort. Thus a 100 percent ban was impractical. But what about the plastic bags of less than 50 micron which every vegetable vendor by the wayside readily offers to put the purchases because the customers do not bring their own shopping bags? What about the makers of plastic bags and the losses they would suffer?

Cut to Hiranandani Estate, Thane’s upper crust township with perhaps a population lower than Daploi’s. It has that impersonal air about it, everyone commuting to Mumbai for executive jobs, mostly by car, and a few stores within the campus. Yet, despite the arduous efforts of an all-women local area managing group periodically picketing shops, the plastic bags are still in use. A cloth bag is infra dig.

One store which is abuzz on weekends as if it were Thane’s overcrowded station at peak time, claims that at any given time it keeps a stock of plastic bags worth Rs 1 lakh. A customer bringing his own cloth shopping bag is a novelty. It is as if the well-meaning ladies’ efforts are coming to a naught but they persist; if they see you walking with a plastic bagful of stuff, they pointedly look at it before greeting you.

It is when plastic bags find their way into the garbage that the crisis starts — as it did it during July 26, 2006, flooding Mumbai — because they choke the nallahs and storm water drains, preventing water from flowing easily during monsoons. Apart from high tides and a cloudburst, choked Mithi was on major reason for the misfortune.

The experience has led to only half-hearted efforts from everyone concerned. The authorities who banned by statute their use in Maharashtra in 2006 are not the enforcers; the local civic bodies are. The shopkeepers have to pander to their customers and after all, there is hardly any check by squads. To the end-user, it is something that goes out with garbage.

When everyone abets, even promotes, the crime of plastic’s preponderant, mindless use, what better than punish those who promote it? Central Railway decided to take drastic steps. It banned sale of any item that was wrapped in plastic on any of its 80-odd suburban stations between Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Kasara. The move has its flaws though.

The items includes branded ones, biscuits, chips etc. The logic is after consuming the content, the tossed out plastic wrapper ends up in the gutters alongside, choking them, flooding the tracks, and disrupting services which as Mumbai’s lifeline, it can ill-afford. So it got to the root of the problem though their railway stations are not known to have garbage bins which, even if available, are unlikely to be used for two reasons: the commuters are in a tearing hurry and civic sense is at a premium.

The contractors who run kiosks on platforms after paying hefty fees for the rights will doubtless be up in arms and ask the following questions: why only us, and not on the Western Railway network? Why not ban on water in plastic bottles? What about items the commuters may bring with them? What about the food served on long-distance trains by the railways itself in plastic plates with plastic spoons, and the illegal tea vendors using tiny plastic disposable cups?

The principle behind the ban would quickly be forgotten but the ban itself assuredly berated for the inconvenience to the commuters and loss to the traders in the stalls. Such a ban, however, logically have to be applied to other points of sale across the country, including the major super stores. The charge of Rs 2, Rs 3, and Rs 5 per carry bag depending on its size and of 50 micron thickness is only pretence at following the law.

Everything sold within are wrapped in plastic. Even the 50 gm ginger and 100 gm green chillies picked up from the green grocery section has to go in a separate plastic bag which can easily carry up to 2 kg of loose grocery like sugar, lentils, wheat or rice. Inconvenience of barcode reading if filled with different items and the slowing down at the cash counter if kept in loosely is the excuse why the bags are promoted.

One shopping trip can see so many bags for each item bought that the intended discouragement by charging for carry bags becomes pointless. The stores happen to be smarter. When the government ordained that they be charged for, they cleverly also put their store’s name, promoting their brand at the customers’ cost and claim to having gone green!

At this rate, mainly because of lack of enthusiasm of the authorities – in this case, civic bodies, from nagar panchayats (Dapoli is a nagar panchayat) to major city governments like Mumbai’s – and the willingness of the sellers of goods to make available any plastic bag for the asking, and more importantly the citizens’ couldn’t care less attitude keeps plastic ban merely on paper.
Time, therefore, to revisit the issue, especially because the Central Railway took by far the most drastic step. If that does not work, then nothing else would. It has to be reprioritised it to levels where it becomes everyone’s concern because not just towns and cities but even rural swaths are finding the overwhelming presence of plastic bags.

A crisis point has already been reached. Places like Dapoli have shown the way. So let’s not quibble, just do it.