One state offers a roadmap for India’s bid to ban single-use plastics


CHENNAI, India – Amul Vasudevan, a greengrocer in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, thought she was going out of business.

The state had banned retailers from using single-use plastic bags, which were vital to its livelihood because they were so cheap. She couldn’t afford to switch to selling her wares in reusable cloth bags.

Tamil Nadu was not the first state in India to try to curb plastic pollution, but unlike other states, it relentlessly enforced its law. Ms Vasudevan was repeatedly fined for using disposable bags.

Now, three years after the ban came into effect, Ms Vasudevan’s use of plastic bags has fallen by more than two-thirds; most of her customers bring cloth bags. Many streets in this state of more than 80 million people are largely free of plastic waste.

Still, the Tamil Nadu ban is far from an absolute success. Many people still defy it and find the alternatives to plastic too expensive or too inconvenient. The state’s experience offers lessons for the rest of India, where an ambitious nationwide ban on making, importing, selling and using single-use plastics went into effect this month.

“Plastic bags can only be eliminated if the customer decides, not the seller,” Ms Vasudevan said from her stall on Muthu Street in Chennai, the state capital. “Getting rid of it is a slow process; it cannot happen overnight.”

In all Indian metropolises and villages, everyday life is intertwined with single-use plastic, which is considered one of the greatest environmental risks. Groceries of all kinds are carried home in disposable bags and food is served on disposable dishes and trays. The country is the third largest producer of single-use plastic waste in the world, after China and the United States.

But now Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has banned some of those ubiquitous items, including disposable cups, plates, cutlery, straws and ear buds. Single-use bags are prohibited, but thicker, reusable bags are allowed. The ban does not apply to soft drink bottles and plastic packaging for chips and other snacks.

India is following places like Bangladesh, the European Union and China in a large-scale effort to reduce plastic waste. But the plan is one of the most ambitious, experts say, as it targets the entire supply chain, from making to using single-use plastic.

What remains to be seen is how committed the authorities will be to enforcing the new law.

“A blanket ban is very difficult to implement unless local authorities take strict action against the violators and build a partnership with people,” said Ravi Agarwal, head of Toxics Link, a waste management advocacy group. “Otherwise we get some sporadic fines here and there and some newspaper reports.”

Last year, the federal government banned very thin plastic bags, but enforcement, left to local authorities, was not strict. Enforcement of the new law is also up to local authorities, but now the government says it will involve the public, who can report violators and their locations with an app.

Public pressure on politicians – to solve plastic-induced drains and sewer blockages, for example – is another major reason for the relative success in Tamil Nadu.

On a recent Friday morning, plainclothes police officers walked down Muthu Street, looking for culprits. Near a section of street vendors selling vegetables and jasmine flowers, they found a street vendor picking up products for customers in disposable bags. Police fined that seller and then seized dozens of pounds of other people’s contraband, fined them and threatened them with jail time.

As of December 2019, authorities in the state have collected more than $1.3 million in fines; the smallest is about $7. But the work never ends: After the agents dispersed on Muthu Street that day, some sellers started using the banned bags again.

“We need to find cheap solutions to stop the use of plastic bags,” said Ms Vasudevan, who was not fined that day. “The rich understand what’s at stake, but for the poor, the government has to make cloth bags cheap.”

Tamil Nadu has tried to address that problem with subsidies and campaigns to promote cloth bags.

At the entrance to the Koyembedu wholesale market in Chennai, authorities have installed two vending machines with 800 cloth bags, each costing 12 cents. The machines are refilled twice a day. While the ban has undoubtedly hurt livelihoods, such as people making and selling single-use plastics, it has been a boon to others.

About 25 miles west of Chennai, in the village of Nemam, about two dozen seamstresses make cloth bags while Bollywood music plays. As part of a cooperative, they have been able to increase their own income by making more bags.

“We are producing more cloth bags than ever before,” said Deepika Sarvanan, head of a local women-only self-help group that was initially funded by the government but is now self-sustaining. “We produce less than 0.1 percent of the demand.”

But for some businesses, such as those that sell live fish, plastic is difficult to replace. “Nobody wants to destroy the environment,” said Mageesh Kumar, who sells pet fish at the Kolather market in Chennai. “But if we don’t sell them in plastic, there’s no other way; how are we going to feed our families?”

For now, Mr. Kumar and his cohort are using thicker bags that they ask customers to return.

Still, Tamil Nadu has made more progress than other states that have tried to curb the use of plastic. The beaches, residential areas and industrial areas are largely devoid of plastic waste. Many residents dutifully collect plastic for recycling and separate waste.

The state’s pioneer was Nilgiri District, an area popular with tourists for its hilltop villages and tea plantations, which banned single-use plastic in 2000. There, the charge was led by Supriya Sahu, an official who realized the dangers of plastic. pollution after seeing photos of dead bison with plastic bags in their stomachs. She started an awareness campaign.

“We’ve made it clear to people that if you want tourism to survive, we need to stop using plastic,” said Ms Sahu, who is now a state-level environmental officer. “Any government-led program can only be successful if it becomes a grassroots movement.”

On a recent damp afternoon, the Koyembedu market offered a sign of success. Out of more than two dozen stores, only two sold flowers wrapped in plastic.

“We’ve been selling flowers wrapped in newspapers for years,” said Richard Edison, a flower seller. “People demand it.”

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