Will Maharashtra be able to implement the plastic ban effectively?

  • India’s western state of Maharashtra declared a ban on single-use plastics on March 23 this year. The ban is to be enforced starting June 23.
  • Plastic pollution is the focus of global observances like Earth Day, Environment Day and Oceans Day this year. While Maharashtra’s ban aligns with global priorities, experts on ground feel it is weak in its current form.
  • Every day, Indian cities generate 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste of which 9,000 tonnes are collected and processed/recycled according to an assessment report of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

With plastic pollution in the international limelight this year, Maharastra’s ban on plastic stands out as a shining example in India’s larger effort to align with international priorities. The view on the ground however, is that the ban in its current form is weak and is likely to fail.

Global initiatives like Earth Day, Environment Day and Oceans Day, among others, are all focusing on action against plastic pollution in 2018. The specific issue of plastic waste has perhaps never had so much international focus and India has asserted its role in the global efforts. India, infact, is the global host of June’s World Environment Day which urges nations to “beat plastic pollution”.

So when India’s second-most populous state declared a blanket ban on single-use plastic, on the auspicious day of the Maharashtrian new year, it struck the right cord. The ban has ignited much debate and got people talking about the perils of plastic. But those who are digging deeper into the modalities of the ban document are worried whether this could be yet another empty threat in the state’s attempts to control plastic pollution.

Every day, Indian cities generate 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste of which 6,000 tonnes usually litter drains, streets or are dumped in landfills. Photo by shashishekharkashyap/Wikimedia Commons.

Declared on March 23, the plastic ban notification is to come into full effect on June 23, giving vendors, consumers and the plastic industry, three months to find alternatives to single-use plastic. Today, as the state stands halfway through this three-month grace period, low awareness about the modalities of the ban, strong lobbying by the industry and a lack of realistic alternatives and timelines are some of the reasons that critics feel the ban in its current form could remain just on paper.

What the ban says

The ban notification, Maharashtra Plastic and Thermocol Products (Manufacture, Usage, Sale, Transport, Handling and Storage) Notification, 2018, comes six months after the Maharashtra environment minister, Ramdas Kadam took up the issue of plastic pollution with the Cabinet.

In the notification, the “manufacture, usage, transport, distribution, wholesale and retail sale and storage, import of the plastic bags with handle and without handle, and the disposable products manufactured from plastic & thermocol (polystyrene) such as single use disposable dish, cups, plates, glasses, fork, bowl, container, disposable dish/ bowl used for packaging food in hotels, spoon, straw, non-woven polypropylene bags, cups/ pouches to store liquid, packaging with plastic to wrap or store the products, packaging of food items and food grain material etc.” has been banned in Maharashtra.

Clarity and awareness on plastic items banned in Maharashtra is needed. Non-woven plastic bags for example, are banned as per the notification but are still in use unknowingly as they look and feel like fabric. Illustration by Aditi Deo.

This is not the first time that a ban on plastic products has been initiated in the state. A 2006 notification bans plastic bags of less than 50 microns in Maharashtra. The current notification recognises the ineffectiveness of the 2006 plastic bag ban stating that “despite the ban on plastic bags of less than 50 micron through Maharashtra Plastic Carry Bags (Manufacture and Usage) Rules, 2006, there is increase in the non-biodegradable plastic garbage waste causing damage to environment and health.” It goes on to highlight that the “non-biodegradable waste is posing problems in effective implementation of Clean India Mission,” referring to the national Swachh Bharat Mission, a campaign on cleanliness launched by the current national government in 2014.

The notification initially gave a deadline of one month for the ban to be in action, which has now been increased to three months. At the end of the three-month deadline, the ban will come into force and violations will attract a penalty from Rs 5,000 upwards.

Amendments exempting certain plastic products, like small PET bottles with holding capacity less than 0.5 litres, have also been declared, much to the disappointment of those pushing for an effective ban.

“There is pressure from industries benefiting from plastic and a process of dilution of ban has started,” said Manisha Gutman, an environmentalist who has been campaigning for a ban on plastic bags in Maharashtra for close to a decade now. “If a systematic step-by-step approach is taken by the ban, addressing one product at a time, chances are it would be much easier to implement and more effective in its impact.”

Rohit Nayak, a nonprofit consultant and co-founder of EcoAd finds the extension of the timeline for implementation of the ban, from one month to three months, is another step in dilution of the ban. “In three months time, the authorities will become involved with other things. Other projects will come in the way and there won’t be enough time and resources to implement this ban. There’s got to be a stricter implementation. The government did it with demonetisation, why not with plastic,” he said.

The classic case of development versus environment is regularly in the spotlight in Maharashtra, with environmentalists often questioning whether the dilution of certain laws has been made easier given that the portfolio for industry and environment lie with the same state minister (Industries and Mining, Environment, Public Works (excluding public undertaking) is a combined portfolio under one minister of state).

Learning from others

Maharashtra is lauded for being the 18th state to ban plastic in India. However, the 17 other examples that exist in the country, most of them unsuccessful, should have been a learning for Maharashtra, feels Nayak, who has been monitoring the attempts to control plastic pollution in the state. “While overall I welcome the ban, I am uncertain about its complete success. Most of the recent state bans on plastic have not been successful. Often, the reason has been a strong industry lobby that opposes the ban along with macro-level and other vested interests. The plastic industry has some of the biggest industrial houses of India involved in the industry – petroleum companies for example provide the raw material for generation of plastic bits that go in to the making of plastic products,” he told Mongabay-India.

A study by Delhi-based environmental group Toxics Link aligns with the view of blanket bans in Indian states being unsuccessful to some degree. Their 2014 report, Plastics and environment – Assessing the impact of the complete ban on plastic carry bag, studied the impact of a ban on plastic bags in Sikkim, Delhi and Chandigarh and revealed that in the last two, “the notification on product ban has not achieved the desired result”.

“The decision on material or product ban for environmental reasons may at times be easy to arrive at but requires effective implementation to achieve desired results especially in countries that have weak environmental governance mechanisms. The issue of restricting or banning use of such products in limited geographical areas is fraught with serious threats of failure but a national ban on products is more likely to succeed,” suggests the study.

In an analysis of the effectiveness of plastic bag bans, Katherine Maloney of the social enterprise eCoexist, studied the varying levels of bans on plastic bags in California’s San Jose municipality, Australian capital territory, Sikkim, Delhi and Nairobi in Kenya. Her analysis found that for a ban to be effective, it needs to go into great detail with actionable solutions. In the San Jose municipality, which is part of the first state-wide ban on single-plastic bags in the U.S., the use of reusable bags is also explained with finer details including design, number of uses, carrying capacity and the distance one can travel on foot with items in a bag.

“That is the level of detail we need in the notification. When the text is ambiguous, like it is in the current Maharashtra ban document, people can find loopholes and the ban becomes ineffective,” said Gutman, who is also the founder of eCoexist which works with groups of women to provide cloth bags as an alternative to plastic bags.

Hiten Bheda, the president of the All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association however, feels that comparisons with other countries are not an accurate way to justify the ban in Indian states like Maharashtra. “India’s per capita consumption of plastic is only 12 kgs, compared to the world average of 35 kg per capita. The United States has an avergae consumption of 100 kgs per capita and 25% of the global consumption of plastic is in China,” he said, emphasising that plastic is not as big an issue in India as it is made out to be. “Plastic serves a purpose, it is littering that is the problem. Plastic pollution is being targeted because it is visible pollution and that has precipitated the ban,” he added.

Can the ban be more effective?

A collective of eight NGOs in Pune who welcome the concept of the ban have released an analysis and critique of the ban document, stating “for the ban to be truly effective it has to be refined further and elaborated to enable the expansive vision of the ban to be brought down into practical reality.”

Some of the issues that the document addresses include ambiguity in definitions of different kinds of plastics, an unnecessarily wide scope which may not be practical to implement, unrealistic timelines, a need for phased regulation for different stakeholders which include large retailers and organised institutions as well as the unorganised sector and small businesses, lack of a detailed disposal and recycling action plan and no direction towards development of solution or alternatives.

The document also highlights the risks that can further develop from the current form of the ban. The ban notification “leaves the development of the alternative material, product or system to the industry and market at large. This is resulting in newer materials with claims that cannot be verified and impacts that are unknown,” says the analysis by the collective consisting of NGOs eCoexist , Oikos, Ecological Society, Jeevit Nadi, Aarohana, Poornam Eco Vision, Eco Ad and Swach.

“The ban also does not acknowledge the existing informal system of recycling. By excluding existing recycling chains the ban threatens to derail recycling overall which can only succeed if it integrates existing systems,” the document adds.

Maharashtra has a large unorganised recycling sector. More than 90% of PET is reportedly recycled by the informal sector. Photo by erin/Wikimedia Commons.

While on the opposite side of the ban compared to the NGOs, some of the document’s recommendations are echoed by the AIPMA president. Bheda stresses that it is littering and the mindset that is the problem and not the material. “This ban is a solution in search of problems. It is not sustainable. We need a holistic solution to bring back post-consumption plastic. This should include a robust segregation and collection system, recycling setup and monetising plastic waste for the large unorganised sector of recyclers and bringing them into a more formalised structure,” he recommended, adding that it is a collective responsibility involved everyone from raw material manufacturers, plastic producers, retailers, brand owners, consumers to civic body.

Communication is key

Experts on both sides of the ban emphasise that communication about the ban is extremely important, something which the government has moved slowly on.

“All retailers associations need to be given a clear document of what the ban specifies – what is banned and what is exempted. Currently there is confusion about materials such as non-woven as retailers seem to think it is a cloth fabric,” said the analysis by the collective of eight Pune-based NGOs.

The Maharashtra government has made a provision of Rs. 10 crore for creating public awareness about effective implementation of the ban on plastic and thermocol products in the state. In a Government Resolution issued by the environment department, the Directorate General of Information and Public Relations (DGIPR) has prepared a plan to spend Rs. 100 million (10 crore) for creating awareness among people about the ban on a range of plastic items. Of this, a sum of approximately Rs. 32 million (Rs. 3,28,24,049)  has been paid to an advertising agency to start publicity in print and electronic media.

The ban, for the first time, covers citizens as well. Most bans in India put the onus on the manufacturer or the retailer to follow the ban. But Maharashtra’s ban is applicable to every person, body of person, organisations and public and private venues in the state. The notification instructs individual users to hand over banned items for scientific disposal or sell to an authorised recycler. Additionally, the power to enforce the ban is spread across various authorities. While this eases implementation, it makes it the need for awareness and communication about the modalities of the ban, immensely important to control panic and misinformation among the public as well as to equip the enforcement agencies with significant knowledge about the banned items.

To address this need, Mumbai’s municipal corporation recently set up a helpline number (1800-222-357) for consumers seeking information about banned plastics and appropriate disposal within Mumbai. There are also discussions to rope in Bollywood celebrities to lead the campaign spreading awareness about the ban.

The Mumbai municipal corporation has installed collection bins for banned plastic which are to be sent for scientific recycling. Photo posted by Nidhi Choudhari.

Impact on jobs

Intrinsically linked to the issue of banning plastic is the issue of job losses in the plastic manufacturing industry. The AIPMA estimates that between 2,200 and 2,500 units engaged in plastic manufacturing in Maharashtra will be directly affected. This translates into an impact on around 400,000 people down the value chain. The kind of impact and loss of jobs if any is yet unknown. Experts doing an initial study of the impact on jobs feel that the job loss numbers being reported are very rough. The confusion and general panic among employees is infact a larger issue.

While the notification does not state any further exit strategy from the plastic manufacturing or selling business, there is an indication that the state government is looking at encouraging plastic alternatives, especially alternatives to plastic bags.

Prior to ban announcement, Environment Minister Kadam met with entrepreneurs who make plastic bags and appealed to them to start making cloth bags. In the meeting he also brought up the option of making paper bags. Additionally, an amount of five crores has been set aside by the government to support women self-help groups making cloth bags. Mumbai’s municipal corporation has also put out a notice calling for participants for a three-day exhibition on alternatives to plastic to be held in May.

The expected outcome following the plastic ban is that cloth bag and paper bag manufacturers will see a boom in business. However, entrepreneurs currently involved in cloth and paper bag manufacturing have seen a minor in business but a huge increase in inquiries.

Both eCoexist and EcoAd, involved in cloth and paper bags respectively, handmade by economically disadvantaged women, feel that the ban has got people aware and enquiring about alternatives but many are not yet ready to make the switch. “Cloth and plastic bags are like apples and oranges – you can’t make a direct comparison. Cost-wise, cloth bags are more expensive (an average of Rs. 30 to 40 per handmade cotton bag) than plastic bags and that’s what’s holding people back from making a switch. They want a direct replacement,” said Gutman of eCoexist.

Women’s self-help group making cloth bags under the UseMeAgain campaign led by eCoexist. Photo by eCoexist.

On the paper bag front, Nayak has seen that people on the edge have got the final push to make the switch to an alternative like paper bag. The number of enquiries per day for bulk orders has gone up by almost 10 times but the conversions are still low. “Somewhere, people still feel that the ban will not last. They are finding out about the alternatives but it seems they do not have faith in the ban and are waiting it out to see if it will last,” he said. Depending on quantity, paper bags on an average sell for about Rs. 3.50-4 per bag.

In addition to bags, alternatives to single-use plastic items like food packaging, straws, plates and cutlery are already available in the market. The overall sense however, is that the alternatives segment cannot reach the scale of the plastics industry.

While a reduction in the manufacture and utilisation of single-use plastics will help the environment in Maharashtra, there are legitimate doubts on whether the ban will be implemented effectively. The more important question that is being asked is whether the alternatives will be in place in time to prevent chaos and confusion.

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