India campaigns for plastic ban
By Ravinder Bawa

After about a month-long confusion about a ban of single-use plastic in India, the government clarified on October 1 that there will be no blanket ban on disposable plastic to combat pollution.

Sources say that this step has been deferred as it would mean millions of job losses, especially at a time when India is experiencing the highest unemployment rate in 45 years.

Deepak Ballani, the director general of the All India Plastics Manufacturers Association argues, "If we take the least denominator we presume that the government decides to ban four or five items, about 7000-9000 small units will close down, and almost 400,000 people will lose their jobs, which will have an impact on millions of people and their families."

In his August 15 speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi first spoke about banning single-use plastic. Since then, there has been panic in the country, especially among manufacturers and laborers working in plastic factories.

"We are in a lot of trouble. Ever since I heard (Prime Minister's announcement), I am disturbed, thinking about what I will do now? I have already lived more than half my life... Now, what will I do in the future? I still hope that the government might make some announcement to restart the factories and I come to the factory every day with this hope. There is no work for one month. I have to pay for the school fees of my children and other expenses of my family, and it is serious trouble for us," laments a worried Bijendra Singh.

City civil authority workers and volunteers pick up plastic waste during a clean up drive at the Versova beach in Mumbai on September 14, 2019. /VCG Photo

City civil authority workers and volunteers pick up plastic waste during a clean up drive at the Versova beach in Mumbai on September 14, 2019. /VCG Photo

India has a huge plastic waste problem. It generates about 9.4 million tons per year, but there is no easy way to dispose of it. All wet and dry waste reaches the landfill creating a new issue of higher and higher garbage dumps. Delhi, the capital city, has three garbage dumps that have crossed their capacity and now the government is looking for a new site to start the fourth one.

Swati Singh Sambyal, the program manager of the Environmental Governance of Centre for Science and Environment, says, "The biggest issue presently is that the waste management is not sorted. We are hardly able to get segregated wet and dry waste. It's only if you get very clean streams that you can send them for recycling. Even on the industrial front, we don't know if there are alternatives to multi-layered packaging worldwide. They should be given some time to transition ideally. So, a ban ideally, is not basically a solution in its entreaty."

Plastic waste is an acute problem in India, as the waste disposal systems are defunct. India recycles about 60 percent of the plastic waste, but the rest of it makes its way back to the food chain. Ballani explains that banning is not an answer but making disposal systems operable is, "This is a reactionary approach that the government and industry are ready and we need to strengthen the plastic waste management, the collection, and the disposal," he adds.

The silver lining in all this confusion has been that many vendors and customers have said goodbye to disposables. The demand for cloth and paper bags spiraled. Amit Kumar Sinha, who runs an initiative to empower women who make cloth bags says, "Our bulk orders for cloth bags have gone up by 40 percent. The government should have seen the availability of alternatives on the grassroots level. We are getting huge demand for bags and organizations like us cannot fulfill this demand and we don't have the capacity. We will soon have to increase the capacity and infrastructure to meet the demands."

The government and the industry will have to come out with some alternatives before imposing a blanket ban. For now, this campaign has become the talk of the town and self impositions will lead to a small change.

It's not clear whether India will say goodbye to single-use plastic or not, but as of now, the war against plastic has already started.