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Banned plastic including straws, cutlery found in circulation in Mumbai and Delhi. Experts call the ban weak and ask that big players, that produce more plastic, and more plastic items be brought under the ban’s ambit

Three months after India banned certain single-use plastic items to tackle plastic waste, IndiaSpend found those banned items in rampant circulation in Delhi and Mumbai. While vendors expressed helplessness at the lack of alternatives to these plastic products, experts have argued that the ban targets the most vulnerable but gives a free hand to multinational corporations.

India is the fifth highest generator of plastic waste in the world. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had appealed to the people to rid India of single-use plastic in his Independence Day speech in 2019. From July 1, 2022, India banned single-use plastic items that have low utility but are frequently littered around, such as plastic straws. The aim of the ban is to curb plastic pollution, since single-use plastic harms terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

By October 1, three months since the ban came into effect, little had moved on the ground. IndiaSpend found several banned plastic items in circulation in market places, eateries and other public places in Delhi and Mumbai, and a few were found in circulation in Bengaluru as well. Vendors said that there has neither been any punitive action nor any advisory to stop using these products, and that in fact, these products are available wholesale as usual.

The ban was criticised from its inception for covering too little of what makes up total plastic waste. The share of plastic used for these banned single-use plastic products is less than 2%-3% of the total plastic waste generated in India, the industry estimates.

Further, India has not even banned all single-use plastic, experts point out. They argue that the ban is skewed against the smallest segment of the plastic industry, which is the one that needs the maximum hand holding in order to transition away from single-use plastic. Experts say India needs to make the big players accountable for their share of plastic pollution.

IndiaSpend reached out to the Central Pollution Control Board and Union environment ministry with questions about the ban’s poor implementation and conceptualisation, and with the concerns raised by vendors, manufacturers and experts. This story will be updated when they respond.

What is banned

A study by researchers from the University of California and Santa Barbara and others estimated that the world has produced some 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic from 1950–when large-scale production began–to 2015. Of this, 6.3 billion metric tonnes or 80% is plastic waste.

Of this plastic waste, as little as 9% has been recycled. The majority of plastic waste has ended up in landfills or in the world’s oceans and other water bodies. There is global agreement on the need to address the plastic problem and, in the 4th United Nations Environment Assembly held in 2019, India had piloted a resolution addressing single-use plastic pollution.

India notified the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules in August 2021, and the ban came into effect a year later. From July 1, 2022, India banned the following single-use plastic items: ear buds with plastic sticks, plastic sticks for balloons, plastic flags, candy sticks, ice- cream sticks, polystyrene (thermocol) for decoration, plastic plates, cups, glasses, cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives; straws, trays, wrapping or packing film around sweet boxes, invitation cards, cigarette packets, plastic or PVC banners less than 100 micron, and stirrers.

A ban is already in place on carry bags having thickness less than 75 microns and, from December 31, 2022, bags up to 120 microns will also be banned. Also, there is a complete ban on plastic sachets used for storing, packing or selling gutkha, tobacco and pan masala.

All that is fine but…

Narendra (last name withheld at his request) used to work in a bank in Mumbai. He lost his job during the pandemic, and resorted to selling coconut water outside Mumbai’s Lower Parel station. “A packet of plastic straws costs Rs 18 and has 60-70 straws,” he says. “A similar pack of paper straws will cost between Rs 30-40. We cannot even pass on this increased cost to the customer because nariyal paani [coconut water] is already selling at Rs 60 apiece. Customers will simply not buy it anymore.”

Vendors IndiaSpend spoke to in Delhi say that single-use plastic items like candy sticks, plastic containers and packing film continue to be distributed by the manufacturers, and that they have no say in it.

Ram Gopal, a shopkeeper at a weekly market in Vasundhara Enclave in Delhi where IndiaSpend found earbuds with plastic sticks, said, “I got these (earbuds) from the wholesaler, they are the ones who sell these. Is there a substitute for this product? I don’t know of any.”

Munna Singh, who owns a juice corner in Saket, New Delhi talked about how plastic straws are easily available at Azadpur Mandi. “Plastic straws are a convenient option for us because they are much cheaper,” Singh said. “We will think of paper straws but that is not our priority. The business is already dead since the pandemic. We need to survive.”

Piyush Chaudhary, who sells Chinese food and shakes in Noida’s Sector 18, said that he has moved towards paper straws, but substitutes for plastic cutlery and glasses are expensive, which is why he still uses the plastic versions.

Satish Kumar, who sells readymade garments that come covered in plastic wrap at Noida Sector 34’s weekly market, asked the question many experts have also asked and the government has not yet answered. “Why don’t you ask big shopkeepers (about the use of plastic)?,” Kumar asked. “We are poor people. Why is the burden of saving the environment on the poor?”

IndiaSpend reached out to the pollution control boards (PCBs) of Delhi and Maharashtra, asking them why banned plastic items are in circulation, what action has been taken so far, whether field inspections were done and any licences cancelled as per provisions of the ban. In response, the regional officer of the Maharashtra PCB Nandkumar Gurav directed officials to take action against violators and to ask the local body to increase vigilance. This story will be updated when the Delhi PCB responds.

In our reporting from Bengaluru’s Kaggadaspura in C.V. Raman Nagar area, however, we found fewer instances of banned plastic in circulation. A tender coconut seller in this area had made the switch to paper straws but found them expensive.

“I am unable to find plastic straws easily due to the ban. Paper straws cost more than plastic (Rs 10 for 50), but I have no choice because of the law,” he said, requesting anonymity.

At retail stores, we did find plastic earbuds.

When quizzed about it, a staff at one such store said, “Some earbuds may be plastic, but they are manufactured that way. What can I do?”

Millions of tonnes of plastic generated

In 2020-21, India generated nearly 3.5 million tonnes of plastic, as per details provided by 35 states and Union territories. Maharashtra forms 13% of this, followed by Tamil Nadu (12%) and Punjab (12%). Meanwhile, India’s recycling capacity, at 1.56 million tonnes per annum, is only half of the total plastic generated. Brands are expected to recycle around 800,000 tonnes per annum as part of their Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

Of the total plastic generated, the share of the now-banned single-use plastic–at, as we said, 2-3%–is minuscule. Thus, even if the ban had worked well, the impact on plastic waste generation would be negligible.

The fact, though, is that the ban has not worked, even sub-optimally. A study of the CPCB’s mobile application ‘SUP-CPCB’, meant for citizens to lodge complaints about single-use plastic, shows that many southern Indian cities had very few complaints. The largest number of complaints came from Delhi at 605, of which only 378 were addressed as of September 27, 2022. Ghaziabad had 168 complaints.

In Pune (138), most complaints were about cutlery, and 46 were addressed. Vadodara also had a large number of complaints about plastic cutlery (67) and a total of 133 complaints, of which only 43 were addressed. Several Indian cities such as Lucknow (106), Hisar (64), and Bijapur (63) had not addressed even a single complaint lodged on the app (based on data from the app dashboard. IndiaSpend lodged a complaint on this app about a plastic straw in Mumbai on September 21, and its status is still listed as ‘pending’.

Impact on consumers

Against that, there is the fact that the ban as it stands impacts the most vulnerable segments of the plastic industry and causes economic damage and job losses. It also directly impacts consumers, as Kotak India found in its July report.

Among banned items, with a move from plastic to paper, the cost of straws could increase for low value packs of juices and other beverages, from Rs 0.25-0.30 to Rs 1-1.25 per unit, as per industry estimates in the Kotak India report. These low-value packs make up for more than 30% of overall volumes ,and switching to alternatives could increase packaging costs, especially in the case of sachets. “Thus, any broad-based ban on SUP in the medium term could impact volumes as well as profitability of the sector,” the report warns.

In sum, this report concurs with industry experts in pointing to a cascading impact. Replacing plastic for small price-point items drives up the cost; the rise in price forces the end consumer to buy less; this in turn affects the industry.

“Larger plastic goods manufacturers are expected to diversify their operations to produce sustainable alternatives,” said Bobby Verghese, a consumer analyst at GlobalData, a private research organisation that tracks industries. “However, the hefty price of these alternatives–at an average of Rs 1 to Rs 5 per disposable straw [in comparison to plastic straws]–is deterring buyers. Instead of anchoring the per pack price at Rs 10, beverage manufacturers can educate consumers about the environmental cost of plastic straws and motivate them to pay a bit more for eco-friendly packaging.”

What has the ban yielded?

Educating the customer, however, is a long-term process. In the short term, not only has the ban not significantly impacted the use of SUPs, it has caused a section of the industry to shut shop, leading to financial distress and job losses.

Hiten Bheda, ex-President of the All India Plastic Manufacturers Association (AIPMA) and chairman of its environment committee, fears that small manufacturers will get wiped out thanks to the ban. “The lower segment of this industry primarily offering monolayer packaging which is easier to recycle are affected the most, whereas multi-layered plastics used by large brands which are difficult to recycle, and retrieve from the environment, continue to grow,” says Bheda. “The latter are the main contributors to visible pollution and leave a deeper carbon footprint. How is it fair that the policy based on the “Polluter Pays” principle has failed to recognise this?”

Small manufacturing units at the bottom of the pyramid, Bheda says, who have the largest employment generation potential are being penalised for no fault of theirs and are unlikely to survive under current provisions.

Bheda was referring to the problems in EPR wherein producers, importers and brand owners manufacturing single-use plastic used in the packaging of products such as biscuits, instant noodles, mineral water etc. do not face a ban as long as they promise to recycle the quantity they generate. These companies manufacture the other biggest source of plastic pollution: multi-layered plastic, which technically cannot be recycled.

Atin Biswas, Program Director (municipal solid waste) at Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Science and Environment, pointed out that what India has implemented is in fact not a single-use plastic ban, because only a very small fragment of these products are banned. He further questioned the basis of selection of these particular items for the ban.

“There was insufficient evidence to conclude that these banned items are far more problematic than those not banned,” Biswas said. “A high-powered committee developed a score-based methodology where they evaluated plastic items on a utility index and environmental impact. Here is the catch; 60% plastic waste coming from packaging is manufactured by 30-35 brands. Most of this waste is SUP, even bottled water. How come these items do not feature in the ban?”

Biswas is not the only one to point to the skewed nature of the ban. “You have targeted a segment that doesn’t have any manoeuvring capacity,” says Swati Sheshadri, team lead at the Centre for Financial Accountability. “For hawkers and vendors, if they have Rs 2-4 markup price, how will they afford paper straws? These are not MRP products they sell, so people bargain with them as well. Those vendors are really vulnerable.”

Pointing out that if even this partial ban has to produce results, the lowest tier of the industry will need considerable hand holding in the initial stages, Sheshadri says, “At least keep a subsidised vending machine for paper straws. If you are going to use punitive action directly while giving them no relief, this is a double punishment. Big companies’ NPAs are forgiven, but can’t you give a vendor subsidised alternatives?”

Sheshadri believes that if the government is serious about ending plastic pollution, it needs to first target the petrochemical industry (which supplies the raw material for plastic) and not the vendors.

This article was originally published in India Spend and can be read here.

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