A “ragpicker” on Mumbai’s shoreline, which is littered with plastic waste.

A “ragpicker” on Mumbai’s shoreline, which is littered with plastic waste. AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

In India’s Largest City, A Ban on Plastics Faces Big Obstacles

Facing a scourge of plastic bags, the Indian state that includes Mumbai mandated a sweeping ban on plastic bags and other throwaway plastic items. But the chaos that followed shows the challenges of restricting a material so deeply embedded in the modern economy.

In June, one of the world’s strictest plastic bans came into effect in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai — population 18.4 million — is the capital. Plastic bags had been banned here before, to little effect. This time, however, thanks to a strong push from a prominent young local politician, the restrictions are far more sweeping. They included bans on the manufacture, sale, and use of throwaway plastic items such as bags, plates, cutlery, straws, and small bottles, as well as new regulations governing retail packaging and Styrofoam. And penalties for manufacturing and selling these items were now higher than ever, including fines of up to $350 and jail terms of up to three months.

The first week of the ban was marked by drama and confusion. More than 300 plastic bag manufacturers reportedly had to close, throwing thousands of people out of work. Restaurants began using aluminum takeout containers. Residents weren’t sure if they could even use plastic bags for their garbage.

Then came the backlash. Within a week — after pleas from plastic manufacturers, milk suppliers, small traders, consumer giants like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, and e-commerce companies like Amazon — the government relaxed the rules, exempting small traders and granting more time for bigger players to come up with solutions for retail packaging, including alternative materials and recycling schemes. For now, only plastic bags, takeout containers, plates, and Styrofoam remain forbidden.

It’s not easy to restrict a material that has become so deeply embedded in the modern economy.

In Mumbai’s bustling old Matunga market on a recent weekend, where open-air stalls offered a variety of vegetables and fruits and shops sold everything from mops to milk, plastic shopping bags were conspicuously missing. Customers were armed with canvas and cloth bags; vendors handed out paper ones, if asked.  “It’s like going backwards in time,” said one shopper.

Mumbai’s ban is part of a growing global trend restricting the use of plastics, especially plastic bags and other single-use items. But the city’s dramatic intervention seems more like a lesson in how not to implement a plastic ban. Restrictions were announced just three months before they were to take effect, there was little publicity before the June 23 deadline, and alternatives were not promoted. The failure to enforce previous bans also made people cynical. Big business didn’t even turn up for early meetings of the government committee handling the issue.

“It was a jolt for everyone,” says Sameer Joshi, secretary of the Indian Plastics Institute, an industry body.

As the lobbying, backtracking, and confusion that have beset Mumbai in the past two months shows, it’s not easy to restrict a material that has become so deeply embedded in the modern economy. “Transitioning to more environmentally suitable alternatives will be a lengthy process,” said Keith Weller, a spokesperson for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which launched a campaign on plastic pollution last year.

A fruit stand in Mumbai displays a placard informing shoppers about the new single-use plastics ban that went into effect June 23, 2018.

A fruit stand in Mumbai displays a placard informing shoppers about the new single-use plastics ban that went into effect June 23, 2018. AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, experts say some factors are key to reducing single-use plastic. These include advance consultation with industries, sufficient time to build public support, strong enforcement, and the use of incentives such as the buy-back of banned plastic items. The success stories, in places ranging from Ireland to China, also suggest that charging people for using plastic bags works better than outright bans. Education is also important, as is improving waste management, especially in developing economies like India.

Experts say that targeting consumers and retailers for single-use items like bags, cups, and straws is a good place to start, since they are the most visible and ubiquitous plastic waste. But availability of affordable alternatives remains a challenge. “There is a need for innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Weller, adding that alternative materials — including biodegradable items and biopolymers such as cellulose — need to be seen “as part of a broader strategy toward more sustainable production.”

Governments thus need to expand their focus to industry, especially consumer goods giants, since packaging accounts for half of the plastic waste in the world, according to UNEP. The European Commission now aims to make all plastic packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030.

The quickening pace of action to reduce plastic use reflects growing concern about the impact of plastic waste on the environment, especially marine life. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year, much of it from Asia, especially China, with its growing economies and poor waste disposal systems. Plastic debris is now found on the farthest shores of the earth’s oceans, including in the high Arctic and Antarctica, and at great ocean depths. The discovery of small plastic particles, or microplastics, in the food chain, including in drinking water, have added to the rising concern.

Some companies in Maharashtra state have switched to making packaging material that has been exempted from the ban.

More than 60 countries now have some kind of ban or tax on plastic bags, according to UNEP’s recent report. Data on the effectiveness of these rules is available for only half these countries, of which 30 percent have seen a dramatic decline in use, the report said. These include Denmark, Ireland, China, and the Netherlands. The other 20 percent of countries have seen no change. In May, the European Union proposed a ban on 10 single-use items, including bags, straws, and cotton swabs. Britain also has called for a ban on plastic straws, and other countries may follow suit; in the United States alone, 500 million plastic straws are used daily.

Among the earliest and most successful countries at slashing plastic bag use was Denmark, which in 1993 became the first country to tax plastic bags, levying charges first on bag makers, and then in 2003, on retailers. Today, the average Dane uses four single-use bags in a year, compared to an American or Pole who uses a bag a day. In 2002, Ireland introduced a fee on plastic bags at supermarkets, leading to a 90 percent reduction in use. And in 2008, China reported a 70 percent fall in plastic bag use after it banned bags of less than 25-micron thickness and levied fees on thicker ones.

For Europe, the results are already showing: one study found a 30 percent drop in plastic bags on the seafloor around the U.K. and parts of northern Europe after 2010, which researchers attributed to the spread of bag charge policies.

Less successful has been a 2002 ban in Bangladesh, which forbade thin plastic bags after recurring floods were found to have been aggravated by plastic waste choking storm drains. Poor enforcement of the ban, as well as a lack of cheap alternatives, led to failure.

Experts say measures should be tailored to each country’s socioeconomic situation — sudden bans can be devastating in low-income communities where small businesses operate on tiny margins. The bag ban in India’s Maharashtra state has led to the closure of hundreds of small manufacturing firms, the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, and has cost the plastics industry millions of dollars, according to the All India Plastic Manufacturing Association (AIPMA). Some firms, however, are switching to making packaging material, which has been exempted from the ban.

Since 2016, volunteers organized by environmentalist Afroz Shah (center) have picked up some 35 million pounds of waste — 95 percent of which has been plastic — from Versova Beach in Mumbai.

Since 2016, volunteers organized by environmentalist Afroz Shah (center) have picked up some 35 million pounds of waste — 95 percent of which has been plastic — from Versova Beach in Mumbai. AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

India’s plastic manufacturing sector is small-scale, and “being small, they can’t afford to change their technology overnight,” Joshi of the Indian Plastic Institute said. The city’s food traders also argue that there are no hygienic, cheap alternatives to plastic. So the retreat by officials in Maharashtra was perhaps inevitable.

“The backtracking shows the difficulty in implementing a ban despite good intentions,” says Ravi Agarwal, director at the New Delhi-based environmental group Toxics Link. “Plastic waste comes from a system of packaging, waste collection, and recycling, and the solution also requires a systemic approach.”

For developing countries, waste collection is a big part of the problem. For example, rapid economic growth has increased plastic production and consumption in Asia; annual per capita plastic consumption in India is expected to double to 44 pounds by 2022. This is still far below the 220 pounds-per-year generated by the average American, but waste collection systems in India have failed to keep up with increased consumption. “If you want to import the Western economic model, then you have to import the waste systems too,” said Agarwal.

Recycling, on the other hand, is lacking everywhere. Globally, just 9 percent of plastic waste gets recycled, with some European countries coming close to 30 percent. Recycling capacities are low in advanced economies, such as Britain and the U.S., partly because they export their plastic waste, previously to China and now to Southeast Asia.

India has relatively high rates of recycling, thanks to an informal network of “ragpickers.”

India has relatively high rates of recycling, thanks to an informal network of impoverished “ragpickers.” But they do not collect plastic straws, thin plastic bags, other small items because it’s not worth their time to accumulate the enormous volumes needed to make up one kilogram of low-quality plastic, which fetches just over a dollar. It’s this lightweight, disposable plastic that pollutes India’s waterways, wetlands, and roads.

To its credit, the Maharashtra government seems to be learning from the chaotic launch of its plastics ban. Authorities have allowed small retailers to use thicker plastic to pack loose grains — thick plastic has more recycling value — and have mandated a buyback scheme for bottles and milk containers at a set price. The state government has also required big brands to deposit 25 paise — less than half a U.S. cent — per tetrapak into a reserve fund for collection and recycling. This is part of an extended producer responsibility policy, a concept — well-established in the European Union — requiring manufacturers to cover the cost of disposing of their products properly.

Still, consumers need to play their part, says environmentalist Afroz Shah. He spearheads the world’s largest citizen-led beach cleanup at Versova Beach in Mumbai, which helped inspire the Maharashtra plastics ban. According to Shah, volunteers have collected some 35 million pounds of waste in weekend cleanups since 2016, and 95 percent of this has been plastic. 

A little shock therapy can be helpful, as well. Back in Mumbai’s Matunga market, some vendors roll their eyes at the government’s effort. They’re skeptical that enforcement will last, especially once election campaign season begins later in the year. For now, they’re wrapping vegetables in newspaper and packing grains in thick plastic printed with the buyback price. And shoppers are changing their habits.

One of them, housewife Manisha Shah, said she now keeps canvas shopping bags in her car at all times. She was clutching two of these bags when I met her. “You think you’re done, then you see something else you want to buy,” she said, “But you can’t if your bag is full.”