In 2001, a shop in Ooty in the Nilgiri mountain range was fined Rs 1,000 for disregarding a ban on plastic. News reports from that time talked of a “panic reaction” through the marketplace. In reality, it was not just a fine that made Nilgiris “plastic free”, but a “people’s movement” that ensured environmentally unfriendly habits along with the seized plastic bags lay buried in a nearby dumping yard.
Sixteen years later, the National Green Tribunal on August 10 called for a complete ban on “plastic carry bags” smaller than 50 microns in Delhi’s markets. In Delhi, a 2014 study by the NGO Toxics Link found that the maximum usage of plastic bags was to carry vegetables, fruit, meat and fish and they were used because they were convenient, easily available and cost-effective.
But they come with a cost to nature. The NGT order noted the “serious environmental degradation” caused by plastic bags and its harm to public health, animals in the city, and its ability to choke up drains and sewer lines, causing floods during the rainy season.
States against plastic
Delhi joined 17 states and Union territories that had imposed a “complete ban on manufacture, sale and use of plastic carry bags through directions or notifications and executive orders”, according to a written reply by Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan in Lok Sabha, two days before the NGT order. He said the use of plastic carry bags had been partially banned in some pilgrimage centres, and tourist and historical places in Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
However, Harsh Vardhan said, “there is no proposal to impose ban on the use of polythene bags completely throughout the country”. This was consistent with a reply given by former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who had informed Lok Sabha in 2010 that “a blanket ban (on plastic bags) is not advisable”. He had said that plastic was inherently not a public health hazard, but the inability to collect plastic waste leads to health hazards. Interestingly, Ramesh had pointed out that 20 years prior to that, plastic bags were introduced to check deforestation.
In 2016, the government notified Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, which regulate manufacture, sale, distribution and use of plastic carry bags including those of compostable plastic, and plastic sheets for packaging or wrapping applications, he said.
Enforcing a ban
With last month’s order, the NGT was reiterating an earlier ban on use of disposable plastic in Delhi from January 1, 2017. Delhi was attempting to go plastic-free for the third time since 2009, when then chief minister Sheila Dikshit had called for a total ban. However, the city has never managed to sustain the ban.
In Nilgiris, “I realised a ban driven as a government programme will head nowhere,” said Supriya Sahu, who was the district collector of Nilgiris in 2001 and is now Doordarshan director-general. “The moment we made it a ‘people’s movement’, it opened up opportunities,” she told The Indian Express. “First, there should be clarity on what you are banning… If you start getting technical by saying the ban is on plastic less or more than 20 microns, people don’t understand.”
A photograph of an animal choking on plastic had prompted her to implement the ban. “We carried out huge awareness campaigns,” she said. “We showed people pictures of heaps of plastic piled up in the area, pictures of wild animals choking on plastic, and explained how plastic has a tendency to seep into lakes and drinking water.” In Ooty, a tea planter had noticed that the elephant dung found on his estate contained plastic bags. “A lot of effort and patience went into to making people realise that they had to take these short-term measures for long-term gains.”
In November, 2016, Kannur district in Kerala launched a campaign with the slogan ‘Nalla Nadu, Nalla Mannu’ — good village, good soil — which culminated in a complete ban on plastic carry bags five months later. In fact, the use of disposable articles at public gatherings, including weddings, now requires permission from the district officer.
However, Centre for Science and Environment’s Swati Singh Sambyal, who focuses on municipal solid waste, said the government cannot “just impose a ban” and be done with it. “You have to first give users alternatives to plastic bags, then you impose the ban and only after that you penalise violators with fines.” If not, the plastic reappears “with tourists visiting Himachal Pradesh”, for instance.
“There has to be at least six months of aggressive campaigning before such a ban is imposed. This has also been the strategy in countries like Kenya and Rwanda.” And, “banning plastic should be targeted towards behaviour change”, she said.
Within a fortnight after the NGT ban, authorities in Delhi had seized 9,000 kg of plastic carry bags but have since struggled to find effective ways to dispose of it. Civic authorities say the plastic will land up at the city’s landfill sites.
Himachal Pradesh, the first state in the country to impose a ban on the use of plastic bags in 2003, effectively managed the seized plastic bags initially. The state sought the help of ragpickers to collect the plastic bags and mixed it with other materials and then used it for road construction.
However, two years ago, reports emerged that a “huge quantity” of plastic waste collected in Shimla was being transported to Chandigarh for disposal daily. In Shimla, the ban is not easily known to tourists. The plastic waste of Shimla and Chandigarh were reportedly processed together and the refuse drive fuel (RDF) is sent to power plants in Patiala and Nakodar in Punjab.
Even in Sikkim, a success story in enforcing the ban, disposal has been a cause of worry. The 2014 Toxics Link study had noted that “in Lal Bazaar, Gangtok, fish and meat were being sold wrapped in newspaper” and in some other shops “items provided in brown paper bags and newspapers”. What was worrying was that over 90 per cent of residents in rural areas of Sikkim were burning plastics as a means of disposal.
Sahu, the former district collector in Nilgiris, agreed that the disposal of plastic 16 years ago was not done in the “most scientific way”. “We buried the plastic bags in a dumping yard by placing one layer of it, packing it with a layer of sand over it and then laying another layer,” she said.
In Delhi, Sambyal suggests returning the bags to the manufacturers. “The confiscated bags should be returned to the manufacturers or mixed with other materials and recycled. Or, given Delhi has waste-to-energy plants, it could also be sent there,” she said.