Mumbai realises gravity of plastic menace during monsoon, says BMC; for ban to succeed, civic body needs to ensure people accept law

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.

Read Part I of the series here.

***

Earlier this week, one of Mumbai’s most popular tourist attractions was witness to a disturbing sight — the sea during high tide had thrown up hundreds of tonnes of garbage back into the city along Marine Drive, bringing to mind the popular expression, what goes around comes around.

Civic workers inspect shops following the plastic ban in Maharashtra. PTI

Civic workers inspect shops following the plastic ban in Maharashtra. PTI

Photographs from the promenade highlighted the scale of the problem of pollution we now face as well as a complete lack of civic sense among people. Anyone returning to the stretch the next day would still find plastic bottles, empty packets of chips, polythene packets and the like dumped on the tetrapods by those completely unmoved by the sights from the previous day, unworried about the larger picture and the impact their actions have on the environment.

Amid this absence of social ethics among citizens, the government of Maharashtra enforced a ban on plastic. 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.

"It was extremely painful to see the sight (at Marine Drive) as whatever we littered in the ocean was returned,” said Nidhi Choudhari, deputy municipal commissioner (special) of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). “The monsoon in Mumbai brings out the menace of plastic and gives us the broader picture. Mumbai gets flooded because plastic garbage chokes the drainage system, and therefore, Mumbaikars realise the gravity of the plastic menace more during the monsoon.”

Choudhari is one of the BMC’s point persons with regard to implementing the plastic ban in Mumbai. She has been overseeing the enforcement of the restriction, as well as spearheading campaigns to spread awareness about the ill-effects of using plastic and the use of alternatives.

Challenges, haste and the way ahead

According to data from the Central Pollution Control Board, plastic consumption in Maharashtra is among the highest across Indian states. While the ban was a landmark decision, given the scale of the problem, it is also immensely challenging, especially when it comes to Mumbai.

On the obstacles the BMC foresaw in enforcing the plastic ban, Choudhari said, “As an implementing agency, the biggest challenge is to make people accept the law, understand its rationale and have a robust implementing system.”

It is this acceptance of the law that environmentalists believe might be the biggest hindrance to the success of the plastic ban. “The success of the plastic ban basically depends on behaviour change, and it will not work if it’s implemented in a rush,” Swati Singh Sambyal, programme manager for environmental governance at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), had said. “To ask for change in a small span of time isn't easy.”

With this, Sambyal put in words an aspect of the initiative that several activists have questioned repeatedly — the government’s haste in implementing the plastic ban. She explained that “a ban like this needs time and preparation” and that it should have been implemented in phases — starting with single-use plastic — as three months was “not enough time to ensure its success”.

Choudhari, however, vehemently disagreed with this.

It was in September 2017 that Maharashtra environment minister Ramdas Kadam had announced the state’s decision to introduce the ban on the occasion of Gudi Padwa on 23 March, 2018.

While the notification was released that day, the Bombay High Court had ordered a three-month extension, forcing the government to push the implementation of the move to 23 June.

“As the ban has been in the news since September 2017, it cannot be said that it was a hasty decision,” the senior BMC official emphasised. I believe that the ban should have been introduced years ago, considering the harm single-use plastic has caused, in Mumbai in particular and to the environment in general. The decision was not implemented in a hurry.”

Spread of awareness on the plastic ban

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 used to.

“You need to prepare the consumer and market before trying to bring in such a drastic change,” said CSE deputy director general Chandra Bhushan. “There should have been infomercials and programmes to build awareness before being brought into force on 23 June.”

Choudhari, however, insists that the government and the BMC had taken ample measures to spread awareness about the new rule ahead of its implementation. For this, she said the civic body had employed awareness vans, held street plays and exhibitions and discussions with traders and retailers, trained self-help groups on plastic alternatives, advertised in newspapers and at theatres, and also engaged with celebrities.

“We have displayed a list of manufacturers of plastic alternatives on the MCGM portal,” she said, referring to the BMC by its lesser-known name, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai. “We had also organised a three-day exhibition from 22 to 24 June to promote the plastic alternatives available.”

Alternatives to plastic and their affordability

Speaking of, the exorbitant prices of alternatives is another hindrance that concerns environmentalists. Bags made of cloth, paper and jute, as well as cutlery and food containers made of bamboo, sugarcane, paper and pinewood, are some of the alternatives available in the market, but they are not the most cost-effective.

Sambyal had suggested introducing subsidies to ensure that affordable alternatives are available to vendors to adapt to the change. “The economic feasibility of alternatives should have been taken into consideration, and the alternatives need to be made viable,” the CSE programme manager said.

In this case, Choudhari passed the onus onto the government. “The matter of providing subsidies for alternatives lies with the state government,” she said, not adding anything more to the subject. However, she believes that with rising demand, the cost of alternatives to plastic “will certainly reduce because of economies of scale”.

Non-Mumbaikar plastic waste

The plastic that we see around Mumbai is not restricted to what residents of the city discard. Tourists and others coming to the city, as well as plastic packaging entering its limits, add to Mumbai’s plastic waste. But the BMC is not worried about this.

“Now that the ban is statewide and more than 20 states have introduced the rule, the issue of tourists’ acceptance should not be too much of a concern,” Choudhari said. “Besides, the tourist department of Maharashtra is also authorised to take action if its officers find banned plastic products being used.”

The civic body is also of the opinion that the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) norms enforced by the state government will be effective in tackling single-use plastics such as chocolate wrappers and packets of chips. EPR 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 for the plastic waste they generate.

“The government has introduced EPR for multi-layer packaging such as chips, biscuit wrappers etc,” she said, adding that monitored collection of this type of plastic is required for EPR to be effective. “Companies are granted exemptions with EPR and buyback mechanisms. If EPR and buyback systems work, then the issue of single-use plastic can be handled.”

A buyback system is where consumers pay extra for a product and get money back when they deposit the packaging back with the manufacturer or store.

Measuring the effectiveness of the plastic ban

When the government had announced the ban on plastic products, it had not mentioned any targets or timeframe by when it expected to see change. When asked about this, Choudhari said environmentalists and independent agencies should carry out this kind of study. “The effectiveness of the ban can be monitored on the basis of the change in the amount of plastic waste generated every day, the total plastic waste municipal authorities collect, the plastic recycled, a drop in incidents of drainage blocks, etc,” she said, adding that the “impact of the plastic ban will certainly be visible in time”.

Here, we cannot disagree with her. Mumbai is about a month into the ban, and change — however minor — is clearly visible. Roadside vendors are rarely seen selling their products in polythene packets; stores have switched to handing out products in brown paper bags; and a majority of restaurants have stopped sending plastic cutlery with their deliveries.

The other day, I noticed an egg seller sitting under his umbrella, making paper bags out of discarded newspapers in an attempt to make things easier for his customers. When I asked him since when he had been doing this, he merely shrugged and said, “Abhi aur kya chaara hain (what other option do we have now)?”

But chaara they have. It is knowledge of these options that needs better awareness, in addition to cooperation from people.

According to the Union environment ministry, India generates 16,000 metric tonnes (MT) of plastic waste every day, of which 10,000 MT is collected and processed, and the rest ends up in dumps and drains that empty into the sea. The BMC estimates that of the 7,000 MT tonnes of garbage generated in Mumbai daily, approximately 500 MT is plastic, and Maharashtra generates about 1,200 MT of plastic waste every day.

Till 19 July, the BMC collected 3,548.54 kilograms of plastic from 98,896 shops and establishments and collected Rs 40,80,000 in fines. This plastic will be handed over to recyclers registered with the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board in a month's time.

The plastic ban undoubtedly has promise, and effective waste management and disposal, as well as recycling, can take us a step closer to bringing down these numbers. A study of these figures in about three to six months can give us an idea of the kind of change the government’s decision has brought about.

Think about this: every bit of plastic we once used is still there somewhere. As long as everyone does their bit, Mumbaikars can hope for a cleaner Marine Drive after a record high tide.

Kamble is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.


Updated Date: Jul 20, 2018 20:11 PM

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