Maharashtra plastic ban: A consensual approach and longer timeline would have been more pragmatic
The e-commerce and organised retail segments will have to seriously reconsider their options with this ban, as they rely on plastics for sale and delivery.
Authorities have been quick to introduce bans, with various reasons given to justify them. Non-economic bans have been aplenty, many of which have worked on emotion. The beef ban satisfied the religious sentiments of the Hindus while a ban on liquor helps womenfolk deal with drunk husbands. Banning movies assuages the sentiments of a particular community while dress codes in colleges adds to moral policing. The big-bang economic ban in recent times was demonetisation, which initially sought to improve the moral fabric of our society.
Now, there is a ban on the use of plastic bags in Maharashtra, which isn't really odd considering several other states have banned their use. How would this work?
There can be little argument on the fact that plastic bags add to environment degradation and trigger blocks in drainage systems. They are hard to dispose and hence their use needs to be curtailed. The ban is an extreme form of curtailment and raises some important questions that need to be thought of, as it can create as much havoc in our lives as demonetisation did.
Firstly, such bans have to be at the national level and enforced in all states with the same stringency or else there will be scope for playing with regulation across states, also called regulatory arbitrage. Further, as there is a lot of inter-state movement of people and goods, it opens the door to administrative extortion at the entry-points when goods come from states that do not have such laws. With airports, railways stations and bus stands being points of arrival, monitoring the same becomes difficult.
Secondly, just like how the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) phased out old notes with a pre-dated stamp, it requires at least a year to have it fully implemented and doing so with immediate effect, with a three-month window, will create a different set of problems:
- There are several units that produce such material and the last mile connection with the consumer who uses the bag will be a SME. This will mean a loss of business and jobs as a ban means zero production.
- There are large stocks of material lying with dealers who use it to supply goods, and hence the destruction of inventory will mean considerable losses for the holders unless they are compensated, which will not be the case.
- Backward linkages with companies that produce and distribute these products will also get impacted as the machinery used will become defunct. Therefore, collateral damage will be felt here. Providing a one-year window gives stakeholders time to make necessary adjustments and minimises pain. The SME segment is already in the NPA stream of banks; there will be accretion to the same as these associated businesses close down.
- Forcing everyone to surrender at the same point increases the cost of disposal. Ideally the protocol should be to stop fresh production and let existing bags be used repeatedly till they become un-usable, to ensure that the transition is smooth. With this ban, there will be tonnes of plastic that will be handed over to the authorities, which will either gather dust or prompt large scale disposal that would otherwise be well spread out over time.
Thirdly, the present law blows hot and cold on the exemptions. Milk bags and (polyethylene terephthalate) PET bottles of specific dimensions are exempted. But what happens to grains, edible oils, among other things. Would they have to be packed differently with this new law? Also, the rationale of differentiating between a half-litre and a less than half-litre bottle appears a compromise as either the ban should cover all bottles or none. The same holds for milk packets. In fact, curiously, a lot of disposed plastic bags tend to be recycled for further use and hence if the idea of recycling can work for milk pouches, it should hold for all plastics that can be reused. Quite clearly, not much thought has gone into the detailing of the scheme.
Fourthly, if plastic bags and packaging are banned, then users have to find alternatives. One may recollect that up to the 1980s all packs were in brown paper bags, which gave way to newspapers being recycled, after which came the plastic bags. The nation will have to move back to the use of paper or cardboard or tin (edible oils were sold in these cans), aluminium, among other materials. The e-commerce and organised retail segments will have to seriously reconsider their options now with this ban, as their business flourishes on the use of plastics for both sale and delivery. Plastic was a cheaper option that made it economical to sell goods. By moving back to other forms, there will be an increase in the cost of packaged goods. Local dairies, restaurants, tea vendors, snack shops, among other places, will be affected quite adversely on this score as business will be impacted. Airlines are probably the biggest users of plastics, starting from bottles of water, to disposable glasses used for water and other liquids. They will have to find ways of serving water -- while jugs can be used to pour the water, cups will have to be made of a material that does not violate environment norms.
Fifthly, related to the above, if the idea of banning plastic is based on the environment harm being caused, then, as companies substitute plastic with paper, their moves will result in cutting of more trees, which is tantamount to the same. Alternatively, using tin or aluminium will lead to larger imports that affect the economy.
The basic outcome of this discourse is that economic progress and access to goodies comes at the cost of environment. By doing away with plastic, there is a shift to denuding forest land. Increasing crop production leads to a lowering of water table levels, and moving from petrol cars to electric vehicles involves the issue of disposal of batteries. Nuclear power is cheaper and less polluting than thermal though disposal of nuclear material is onerous and fraught with risk. Whenever we embark on an issue like plastics, there is a need for debate, where all constituents are involved, so that the road to implementation becomes easier. There are jobs involved and issues like disposal of the existing quantum of plastics, ways to check the entry of such material from states where there is no such ban are challenges that have not been thought of at this stage. A consensual approach with a longer timeline would have been more pragmatic.
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