India’s Radical Plastic Ban Could Be A Glimpse of the Future

Alamgir Munna, 15, picks his up as dawn rises over New Delhi. Thela(cart) then goes to work.

He is a young ragpicker who, at an age when he shouldn’t be, digs through piles of trash to find metal and plastic. The Okhla landfill in Mumbai, one the three largest dumping sites in India, produces around 10,000 tonnes of garbage per day. Munna is among the estimated 150,000 ragpickers in Delhi who work at the country’s three trash mountains—one of which is as tall as the Taj Mahal. Not officially recognized as sanitation workers, they brave the methane and other deadly chemicals from the decomposing waste, wild dogs, disease and putrid stench, to recycle about a fifth of the city’s garbage.

Munna earns a meager 500 rupees (or $7) per day to support his hard work. India will ban single-use plastics from July 1, which is a sad way to say goodbye to a source of livelihood. These are the materials used in making items such as earbuds and lollipop sticks, polystyrene containers, plates, cups, spoons or packaging wraps for cigarettes packs, stirrers, and other everyday items. Manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale, and use of these items made of single-use plastics which have “low utility and high littering potential” will not be allowed anymore, according to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. You could face up to five years imprisonment or 100,000 rupees ($1,200), depending on your conviction.

Ragpickers seek out recyclable material at Delhi’s landfill.

Vijay Pandey—Picture Alliance/Getty Images

Like many other migrants who clean after the city’s leftovers, Munna is contemplating leaving Delhi and returning to his village. With the ban looming and no alternative livelihood in sight, he is bracing for an uncertain economic future—along with the rest of India’s 5 million ragpickers, equivalent to Ireland’s total population. For someone like him, with no skills or education and just about surviving on the margins of society—and the law—economic uncertainty is a euphemism for destitution, hunger, and worse.

The outlook is far less dire but no less alarming for the country’s 50,000 plastic manufacturing units—most of them small and medium-sized companies that, combined, employ about 400,000 people—as well as consumer conglomerates that depend on plastic for their wares. As they try to replace the plastic straws that are part of their drinks, leading beverage companies have been asking the government for a delay.

India is finally taking the plunge against plastic. The panic, confusion and uncertainty reflect the world’s struggle to get rid of plastic dependency. This also highlights the need to end an addiction that has been destroying the planet, and the high price countries have to pay.

Learn more U.S. U.S. Plastic Recycling Rates are Worse than We Think

India, like few other countries, is an example of the double bind. Yale and Columbia university released their 2022 Environmental Performance Index report on June 5. It ranked India as second to Nigeria in terms of environmental sustainability. India denies the report’s findings. However, India accounts for 33% of 11,000,000 tons of plastic waste entering the oceans annually, according to data from government officials. The country’s laws require all plastic waste to be separated and reused in projects like paving road and that only a small percentage of recyclables should be dumped in landfills. The Okhla garbage mountains are proof of this. India has more than 40 percent of its total plastic waste that is not collected or separated.

Maharashtra and Karnataka in India have made attempts to ban single use plastic. But these efforts have been largely unsuccessful. This leaves many people skeptical about this new national effort. But Venkatesh Dutta, a professor at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University says that unlike the unsuccessful bans of plastic bags that have been tried earlier, this time the federal government is addressing the problem through the entire supply chain—starting from banning the manufacture and distribution of single-use plastic to banning its sale, possession, and imports.

India’s July 1st national ban will see single-use plastic bags replaced by thicker, more robust plastic bags. This should reduce plastic consumption. This will make it possible to eliminate multilayered plastic, which is the last frontier of the fight against non-recyclables. Although the government had been exploring the possibility of banning multilayered polymers in all forms of consumer packaged goods, including ready-to-eat snack foods and milk packets (and even considering it), the potential economic disruption that such an action could cause has held them back.

Learn more Recycling packaging is the newest trend in eco-friendly. Is it really making a difference?

This is a challenge for those lofty goals the world sets for itself. The world is achieving its lofty goals. United Nations Environment ProgrammeOne hundred and fifty-five countries signed what was called the biggest environmental deal since 2015.

Even for advanced economies, transitions like these can be daunting. The United States announced earlier this month that it would eliminate single-use plastics from national parks and other public lands by 2032. The challenges for India, which is aiming to implement a much more severe ban than the previous one, are greater. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which first announced the single-use plastic ban in 2016, has refused to budge in the face of the chorus of appeals from industry groups to postpone the ban.

An obtuse ragpicker aged 10 shows how much he made selling the recyclable materials he found at New Delhi’s Bhalswa waste dump.

Vijay Pandey/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Sunita Narain, director of the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi, says pushing through the ban is one thing, but implementing it is a different matter altogether, given the limited resources of the country’s pollution board, lack of public awareness, and a proper plan to transition into recyclables.

“You can’t just dictate these things,” says Narain. “It has to be a priority for the government to support the small-scale industries in the transition process.” Companies recycling waste plastic into products such as tiles and furniture often struggle to compete in the market because of their high production costs. Narain, an environmentalist, has been calling on the government for financial incentives to assist such businesses in their recycling endeavors.

Not fines or bans, recycling is the best way to go.

Globally, Kenya’s 2017 ban on single-use plastic bags, which imposed one of the heaviest fines in the world for manufacturing or possessing plastic, is often hailed as one of the most successful steps toward eliminating plastic. Leah Oyake Ombis is the director of Africa Livelihood Innovations for Sustainable Environment Consulting Group, University of Nairobi. She has been a vocal critic of the ban and advocates for a new approach that emphasizes waste management and recycling over bans and fines. Oyake Ombis states that the strategy is more beneficial for developing countries because it creates more jobs in the recycling process.

To create new jobs, government subsidies are key. The bigger issue right now is maintaining jobs. Much of the loss will be felt in India’s vast informal economy, which employs more than 80% of its workers such as Munna. “What will we do when there are no plastics to sell?” Munna asks, perhaps looking for suggestions.

In the formal sector, while India’s consumer goods companies will in general suffer as a result of the ban, small companies will be hit disproportionately harder, says Ashok Kumar Agarwal, president of the Indian Industries Association. That’s because, unlike conglomerates, they won’t be able to absorb the coming losses. “The government should offer subsidies for new machines, and other incentives for the transition to alternatives,” he says.

There is currently no assistance for this purpose, which has created a shortage of recyclable alternatives to plastic used in the production of consumer packaged goods. Plastic is also kept much more affordable than any other alternatives.

Ragpickers gather reusable material from a Hyderabad garbage dump on June 4, 2022, in India.

Mahesh Kumar—AP

In 2016, the same year that the Indian government announced the plastic ban, Hemant Rohra left his full-time job and took a huge personal risk to start a small business making carry bags using a more biodegradable form of polypropylene—the basic element used to make plastic—by adding calcium and other minerals to it.

His hope was that the demand for biodegradable bags will increase over time. But it didn’t happen, as his bags cost six times more than regular plastic bags. His products should be subject to lower taxes. He says that more important is the fact that the government must ensure that the ban has been properly enforced.

India has a history of ambitious laws that can be easily applied on the ground. Industry groups are urging government officials to delay or slow down the implementation of the plastic ban. This is not surprising considering that similar expectations were held for India’s ambitious laws.

However, the government refuses to compromise. It has set up special enforcement units and control rooms across the country. It has been instructed to check for banned products at the state borders. As Environment, Forests and Climate Change Minister Bhupender Yadav, said on June 28, “We have given manufacturers plenty of time for preparation—11 months—before the ban was to come into force.”

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