Maharashtra's plastic ban a 'bold initiative' that needs phase-wise implementation, subsidised alternatives for success

Editor's Note: The plastic ban in Maharashtra has been much talked about since it was enforced on 23 June. This two-part series examines the manner in which authorities could have better addressed its implementation and how the government sees its project unfolding.

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Plastic bags less than 50 microns (which are banned countrywide) are thrown on the streets carelessly. Consequently, they block sewer lines and arteries of storm water drains. Everyone must think over it and cooperate with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation — this was one of the challenges the BMC listed in its 2016-17 report on solid waste management.

A year later, on 23 March, 2018, the Maharashtra government issued a notification imposing a statewide ban on plastic products. The ban is on the manufacture, use, transport, distribution, wholesale and retail sale and storage and import of plastic bags (both with and without a handle) and single-use disposable dishes, cups, plates and glasses, plastic packaging to wrap or store products, and thermocol containers and decoratives.

Hurried implementation and lack of preparation

The rule meant that shopkeepers, retailers, packaging industries and other stakeholders had three months to prepare for the ban on plastic products. That's hardly any time to find and adapt to using alternatives.

"A ban like this needs time and preparation," said Swati Singh Sambyal, programme manager for environmental governance at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). "Three months is not enough time to ensure that the ban is successful. It should have been implemented in phases."

Planning and execution, besides people's willingness to do their bit, are key for this initiative to work. "The success of the plastic ban basically depends on behaviour change, and it will not work if it's implemented in a rush," Sambyal added. "To ask for change in a small span of time isn't easy."

According to data from the Central Pollution Control Board, plastic waste collected from Maharashtra rose from 1,045.24 tonnes per annum in 2011-2012 to 4,69,098 tonnes per annum in 2015-2016.

Given that plastic consumption in Maharashtra is among the highest across Indian states, the ban was a landmark decision, and CSE Deputy Director General Chandra Bhushan agrees. "The plastic ban in Maharashtra is a very bold initiative, and it is long-overdue across the country," he said. "There is no economic, social or environmental rationality behind single-use plastic. It has a high environmental cost."

Sambyal pointed out that last year Kenya enforced a ban on plastic for the third time after two failed attempts. Learning from its mistakes, the African nation made sure that this time, it had alternatives to offer before imposing the ban on people and expecting change.

Giving an example from closer to home, she noted the green protocols implemented in Kerala about four to five years ago. For instance, when events are organised, the state approaches organisations that provide steel utensils and cutlery, and no one complains about it. "Such systems ultimately works on people's mindsets," she said. "When Kerala brought these green protocols into force, it deep-dived into the solutions aspect. This is the approach needed in Maharashtra."

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Maharashtra accounts for a fifth, or 20 percent, of the plastic consumption in India. The figure is an indicator of the kind of plastic usage people are accustomed to. "You need to prepare the consumer and market before trying to bring in such a drastic change. There should have been infomercials and programmes to build awareness before being brought into force on 23 June," Bhushan said.

Need for subsidised alternatives

There are plenty of alternatives to plastic available in the market — bags made of cloth, paper and jute; cutlery and food containers made of bamboo, sugarcane, paper and pinewood; decorative items made of paper; and flowerpots made of recycled plastic. What puts off small vendors is the exorbitant price, which makes it unfeasible for daily use.

Besides emphasising the need to phase out plastic products from the market — starting with plastic carry bags — Sambyal highlighted that the government had not made affordable alternatives available before expecting people to adapt to the drastic change.

"What did the government do in the three months since it issued the notification on the plastic ban? Did it subsidise alternatives?" she asked. "The government needs to provide alternatives when imposing such new rules. Eco-friendly alternatives to plastic come at a huge cost, and the state clearly has not subsidised them. The plastic ban should have been imposed with solutions in mind."

She underscored the need to subsidise alternatives such as cloth and jute bags, adding that it would make the process of making the state plastic-free smoother. "The economic feasibility of alternatives need to be taken into consideration, and the alternatives need to be viable," the CSE programme manager said. "The lower-income class, such as street vendors, cannot always afford the substitutes to cheap plastic bags. The government should make subsidies available to procure them."

The scourge of exemptions

The odd-even rule introduced by the Delhi government in an attempt to reduce air pollution in the city was a noble initiative. But it came with exemptions — two-wheelers, cars driven by women, vehicles driven by women with male companion(s) below the age of 12 and CNG and electric cars — which hindered its success. Similarly, exemptions could put plastic ban in Maharashtra at risk.

Here are a few of the exemptions: Plastic and thermocol used by manufacturing companies are excluded from the ban. So are plastic bags used for storing food grains, plastic bags used for packaged items like chips, chocolates, etc, thermocol boxes used to store medicines and milk pouches above 50 microns in thickness, among others.

Diluting the decision further, the government on Wednesday gave small retailers a three-month extension to use plastic bags for packaging. It is also considering relaxing the restriction on retail packaging, the use of garbage bin liners and takeaway containers handed out at restaurants.

"Exemptions are a panic reaction, and providing them makes the notification meaningless," Bhushan warned. "The government needs to give serious thought to alternatives, the capacity to make the plastic ban a success and think of a time frame to achieve this end." Sambyal echoed his views and stressed that the bigger companies cannot be kept out of the purview of the ban. They have to be brought under the government scanner, too, and forced to switch to alternatives to plastic packaging.

Both experts believe that certain plastic products need to be banned immediately, such as plastic bags and single-use plastic. "An initiative that affects such a large chunk of the population, both consumers and manufacturers, is bound to face resistance," Bhushan said and added, "Instead of handing out exemptions to those opposing the move, the government must work with manufacturers and retailers and figure out alternatives. Give them time."

Segregation for better waste management

Mumbai will be Maharashtra government's biggest hurdle in becoming plastic-free. At the root of this problem is the half-hearted enthusiasm to segregate waste — without which the authorities will not be able to channelise the plastic they collect, and the garbage eventually ends up at a dumping ground. "Apart from plastic, civic authorities need to work out the modalities of segregation, composting and other bio processes," Sambyal said.

"The BMC needs to ensure that not more than 15 to 20 percent of the city's waste goes to Deonar, which is one of world's worst-managed landfills. This segregation needs proper monitoring. If all the garbage ends up at a dumpsite, it will end up contaminating the air and ground water." Sambyal stressed the need for "maximum utilisation of resources" and robust a monitoring system to improve Mumbai's waste management system to filter out the plastic that enters the city through the waterways and other means. She said: "At present, there are no processes to support proper segregation and have it monitored. Some societies follow the rule to separate wet and dry waste, and some don't." She recommended secondary segregation and said that ragpickers could be employed to separate the plastic that ends up at dumps from the other waste. They can also be employed at sorting or recycling centres set up in light of the plastic ban, she added.

The plastic bottle conundrum and recycling incentives

Besides polythene packets, bottles are the most common form of plastic meant to be cleared out eventually. Manufacturers were displeased with the three months they were given to set up recycling units and had hoped that the Bombay High Court would rule in their favour and relax some of the more stringent provisions of the ban.

India has the highest recycling capacity in the world at 60 percent, and PET bottles make up 60 to 70 percent of this waste. Diluting the implementation of the ban, Maharashtra government permitted the use of PET bottles, provided that manufacturers convert them to pellets for recycling, mark them with barcodes to identify the bottlers, and work with NGOs and ragpickers to ensure that the pellets are recycled.

To counter it, the state, in turn, imposed a buyback system, where consumers will pay extra for a bottle of water or soft drink and get money back when they deposit the bottle back. People can always collect the bottles or milk pouches and hand over a stock of them to stores. This could also become a source of livelihood for many.

Examples to draw from, both national and international

Plastic is banned across 25 states in India, and according to the United Nations, more than 60 countries are currently tackling plastic bag consumption, making it clear that it is not a new concept. As such, Maharashtra, and India as a whole, have several examples to draw from to make sure that the ban is a success. For one, India needs strong Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) norms enforced. This is a strategy meant to encourage companies to integrate the environmental impact of their products into the market price of their goods. While EPR rules were framed in India in 2016, producers are far from taking responsibility of the plastic waste they generate.

Several European countries, such as Norway and Sweden, have robust EPR norms in place. These countries began opting for better waste management means way back in the 1990s.

Sambyal highlighted how late India was in getting onboard the EPR ship. "In fact, authorities seem to be only talking about it as there doesn't seem to be any push from the government on the ground on private agencies," she said. "Unless this is done, there won't be a good take-back mechanism."

Long-term viability

"Plastic is not the problem; it's what we do with it," said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, in a report on single-use plastics.

Although the Maharashtra government and the BMC might not have taken the best approach, this green initiative has promise. "It is important to take the initiative positively," Sambyal said. "There needs to be administrative and political will to streamline the process on the ground and ensure its success. This is why it should have been brought into force in phases."

Advocacy groups, awareness programmes, better EPR implementation, availability of alternatives at nominal costs and a tweak in people's mindsets can help make the plastic ban a success, albeit gradually. For this, Sambyal highlighted "the need to have collection and recycling targets and be clear on what they want to achieve". "How else would they evaluate or monitor the success of the ban?" With set goals, coordination, capacity-building and time, the plastic ban can be a success, Bhushan concluded.


Updated Date: Jun 29, 2018 12:56 PM

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