Two years ago, the National Green Tribunal banned single-use plastic bags less than 50 microns. A year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to phase out single-use plastics by 2022. And yet, a walk through two localities on the banks of the Yamuna — the markets in Sonia Vihar and the fruit and vegetable market in Okhla — shows the challenge the capital is up against.
According to records, Delhi produces 2,51,674 tonnes of plastic each year — 50% of which is single-use. That’s roughly 63,000 elephants worth of plastic.
Delhi Environment Secretary Sanjeev Khirwar said plastic bags below 50 microns are still found in markets despite the ban. About a month ago, a team of Delhi government officials seized around 500 kg of banned plastic bags from Sadar Bazar, which had been imported from Gujarat.
“If you see the advisory we have on tobacco products, they look horrible. Similar advisory on plastic products would help reduce their use. Plus school education and having a sense of community ownership would have a positive effect,” he said.
The NGT, in a 2017 order, had also banned single-use plastic, such as straws, cups and cutlery, in Delhi. Municipal officials had initially fined vendors, a visit to Sonia Vihar and Okhla shows disposable plastic products are rampant. An official from the state’s environment department said there was an “enforcement problem”, suggesting that local municipal corporations are to blame.
Along the river, anything from flip-flops to paper products lay in piles every few feet. Shop owners admitted they were concerned, but didn’t know how to fix the mess. “A lot of plastic bags, even recyclable ones, end up in the river,” said Saurabh Bhandari, a stationary shop owner in Sonia Vihar. “It’s something people need to be made aware of, but the government should also offer shopkeepers an alternative to plastic bags at a lower rate.”
Bhandari keeps a newspaper clipping in his shop to show customers that plastic bags are banned, but wasn’t aware that all single-use plastics are banned in Delhi as well. Around Sonia Vihar, most shop owners know about the ban but aren’t convinced it’s a solution.
Even recyclable plastic bags or cloth bags, they say, often end up in the Yamuna. “Wait here for a few minutes and you will see someone dumping waste in the river,” said Mohammed Shamim Ahmed, who often fishes on the river.
Ahmed sometimes asks people why they choose to dump in the river instead of places where waste is collected. “They usually reply, ‘we’ve always disposed of our waste in the river’. That attitude needs changing,” he said.
As per a study by Gurgaon’s Institute of Technology and Management, the Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, despite being the source of 70% of Delhi’s water supply.
Dr Anil Kumar, director at the state environment department, said plastics enter it mostly through open drains in which people dispose of their waste. Dinesh Mohaniya, the vice-chairman of the Delhi Jal Board, claimed plastics only have a 1% share in pollution of the river. He said they have started putting a cover on open drains and routing them to sewage treatment plants.
“We began working on some of the bigger drains first and that project is near completion. Smaller drains in unauthorised colonies are also being covered and we are routing them to our sewage treatment plants where all the floating material in the liquid waste is removed,” he said.
At Okhla fruit and vegetable market, almost every vendor uses non-recyclable bags, which can be seen on the roads. Though many vendors have tried using paper bags instead, customers mostly ask for plastic ones because paper bags break easily, and other plastic options cost more.
“Plastic bags are problematic because animals eat it and die,” said Jarman Paswan, a vegetable vendor. “Some are thrown in the dump or the river. But it’s customers who wish to use them.”
Paswan said he wouldn’t mind a plastic ban because he knows the current bags aren’t biodegradable, but thinks the government should provide a cheaper and realistic alternative for vendors and shop owners.
Mohammed Saddam Qureshi, a vegetable vendor, said, “It’s hard to control use of plastics here because even if someone comes with a cloth bag and buys 20 vegetables, they will want 20 different bags. The use of plastic bags will not phase out until there is a complete ban, but an alternative needs to be thought out first.”
Hiten Bheda, chairman of the All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association, said a ban on plastics in Maharashtra, enforced in 2018, has proven effective: “We should not mimic what European and other western countries have done; there should be an Indian context to this. The government should define what single-use plastics are after scientific evaluation, and when they declare what the banned products are, the industry will remove them.”