As India bans disposable plastic, Tamil Nadu offers lessons

CHENNAI, India – Amul Vasudevan, a vegetable hawker in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, thought she was about to go out of business.

The state had prohibited retailers from using disposable plastic bags, which were vital for their livelihood as they were so cheap. She couldn’t afford to sell her wares in reusable cloth bags.

Tamil Nadu was not the first state in India to try to reduce plastic pollution, but unlike others it was relentless in enforcing its law. Ms Vasudevan was repeatedly fined for using a bag thrown at her.

Now, three years after the ban took effect, Ms. Vasudevan’s use of plastic bags has decreased by more than two-thirds; Most of his customers bring cloth bags. Many roads in this state with a population of over 80 million are free of plastic waste.

Yet Tamil Nadu’s ban is far from a complete success. Many people still oppose it, finding the plastic alternative either 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 certain single-use plastics came into force this month.

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

In India’s metros and villages, daily life is associated with disposable plastic, which is considered one of the worst environmental hazards. All shopping is done at home in throwaway bags, and food is served on single-use dishes and trays. The country is the world’s third largest producer of disposable plastic waste 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 swabs. Single-use bags are prohibited, but thick, reusable bags are allowed. The ban excludes soda bottles and plastic packaging for chips and other snacks.

India follows places like Bangladesh, the European Union and China in a massive effort to reduce plastic waste. But its plan is one of the most ambitious, experts said, as it targets the entire supply chain from manufacturing to the use of disposable plastics.

Now it remains to be seen how committed the officials will be to implement the new law.

Ravi Aggarwal, head of Toxics Link, an advocacy group that focuses on waste management, said, “It is very difficult to implement a comprehensive ban unless local governments take strict action against violators and partner with the people.” Is.” “Otherwise we’ll end up with a few sporadic fines here and there and a few newspaper reports.”

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

Public pressure on politicians – for example, to fix drain and sewage blockages caused by plastics – is another major reason for the relative success in Tamil Nadu.

On a recent Friday morning, police officers in plain clothes searched for criminals around Muthu Street. Near a section of hawkers selling vegetables and jasmine flowers, they found a street vendor handing out produce to customers in disposable bags. Police fined the seller and proceeded to confiscate dozens of pounds of banned material from others, fined him and threatened him with prison.

Since December 2019, officials in the state have collected more than $1.3 million in fines; The smallest is about $7. But the work never ends – after officers dispersed that day on Muthu Street, some vendors started using banned bags.

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

Tamil Nadu has attempted to address this issue through subsidies and campaigns promoting cloth bags.

At the entrance of Chennai’s Koyambedu wholesale market, officials set up two vending machines that hold 800 cloth bags, going for 12 cents each. The machines are refilled twice a day. While the ban has undoubtedly harmed livelihoods, such as those involved in manufacturing and selling single-use plastics, it has been a boon to others.

In the village of Nemam, about 25 miles west of Chennai, about two dozen tailors hand out cloth bags while Bollywood music plays. Part of a cooperative, they are able to increase their earnings by making more bags.

“We are producing more cloth bags than ever before,” said Deepika Saravanan, head of a women’s local self-help group, which was initially funded by the government, but now sustains itself. are not producing even 0.1 per cent of it.”

But for some businesses, such as those selling live fish, plastics are difficult to replace. “No one wants to destroy the environment,” said Magish Kumar, a pet fish seller in Chennai’s Kolathar market. “But if we don’t sell them in plastic there is no other way; How will we feed our families?”

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

Still, Tamil Nadu has made more progress than other states that have tried to reduce the use of plastic. Its beaches, residential areas and industrial areas are largely free of plastic litter. Many residents dutifully collect plastics for recycling and segregate the waste.

The trailblazer in the state was the district Nilgiris, an area popular among tourists for its hill towns and tea gardens, which banned disposable plastic in 2000. There, Supriya Sahu, a civil servant, realized the dangers of plastic. Pollution after seeing pictures of dead bison with plastic bags in its stomach. He started a public awareness campaign.

“We made people understand that if you want to keep tourism alive, we have to stop using plastic,” said Ms. Sahu, who is now a state-level environment officer. “Any government-led program can succeed only if it becomes a mass movement.”

On a recent sultry afternoon, the Koyambedu market showed signs of success. Out of over two dozen shops, only two were selling flowers packed in plastic.

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

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