How not to ban polythene bags

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Instead of hectoring people in the name of court orders to ban the use of ‘poly bags’, a great opportunity has perhaps been lost if the ongoing infringements are anything to go by

By tradition the Chief Minister of Delhi sets out on June 5 — World Environment Day, to clean the Jamuna. The Chief Secretary accompanies her on this early morning crackdown, as the entourage of MLAs, NGOs and pro-green CEOs delve into the river’s filth. Plastic bags emerge as the biggest catch of the day followed by the plaintive refrain, ‘Why can’t the Government just ban plastic bags?’

And presto this January plastic bags were banned. The Confederation of All India Traders then petitioned the High Court even as my dry cleaned saris came home in a brown paper bag with a protest listing 15 ‘facts’ on Plastic vs Paper. The data criticised the paper option on grounds of weight, processing cost, emission levels, adding that recycling plastic bags needed 91 per cent less energy than paper of the same weight. Meanwhile, upmarket groceries stocked wafer-thin paper bags that lacked the tenacity to hold heavier groceries. On February 27 came another ban banning plastic imitations of cloth bags.

My erstwhile colleague JK Dadoo, Delhi Government’s IAS Secretary for environment and anti-pollution when queried on how house-hold garbage should be disposed, responded “use bio-degradable black bags that conform to IS: BIS: 17088 of 2008.” Try telling that to your wife I heard myself say. “What about fish and meat?” I asked the vegetarian Dadoo. “Use silver foil or tetra-packs,” pat came his reply.

Was Mr Dadoo too hasty in advising the Chief Minister to introduce a complete ban? It is one thing to hate the stuff but it is another to clamp a ban without a well-thought-out strategy for expanding access to dependable, inexpensive alternatives. In the absence of that people have begun defying the ban despite Rs 25, 000 fine and three month jail term announced for bad baggers. That goes for Lok Nayak Bhavan’s electrical fittings shops, Khan Market’s meat and fish shops, and all neighbourhood groceries and veggie sellers. That’s pretty much a cross-section of Delhi.

Several countries and at least 20 that my research showed had imposed restrictions on plastic bags — for very good reason. That plastic bags are an environmental hazard (whether dumped in the landfill or retrieved by rag pickers and recycled) is not in any doubt. The way plastic bags choked Mumbai’s drainage systems assuming tragic proportions is live in public memory. Plastic bags piled up on railway tracks, at bus stops, shopping centres and tourist places are ugly and hazardous. Cows ingesting plastic bags containing razor blades and household filth are a ubiquitous sight at Delhi’s 2,000 odd “dhalaos” — municipal parlance for garbage dumps. So why raise doubts now about the need for a ban?

The present ban (by reaching beyond the court’s order) is mimicking modish Western standards before time. Delhi’s garbage collection systems are thoroughly unreliable and the Delhi Government has little control over what the Municipal Corporation does (or does not do) in the name of conservancy and sanitation. Plastic bags are used to dump wet household garbage and the sudden ban leaves no choice except to break the law as permissible alternatives are expensive and shunned by the majority. While banning manufacture would ultimately force people to change bad habits, there were more imaginative and sustainable ways of involving the public in voluntarily pursuing the non-plastic route.

First, the Government should have announced a progressive increase in reducing the use of plastic bags. If a sparsely populated first world country like Australia could set a realistic target of a 25 per cent in the first year and 50 per cent by the next, and insisted on biannual retail end compliance reports, we too could have opted for more attainable goals. Pre- Olympics, Beijing banned free supply of plastic bags and shops were instructed to display the price of biodegradable bags, not to be subsumed in the bill. That worked. Ferreting for change is annoying and people learn pretty fast. Ireland introduced a ‘Plas tax’ which was high enough to make plastic bag consumption plummet in the very first year. But fresh produce was exempt from the ban. That would have made perfect sense for Delhi.

Second, manufacturers could have been encouraged months ago to produce bio-degradable bags in different sizes, labelled for different uses along with symbols. Samples and costs should have been displayed everywhere as part of a motivational campaign. Huge discounts could have been announced on bulk purchase of approved quality garbage bags after holding parleys with manufacturers.

Third, the MCD could have entered the door-to-door supply of garbage bag business and earned money like Jal Board’s drinking water bottles. Fast check-outs or discounts could have been incentivised for ‘good baggers’ at the Kendriya Bhandars and Mother Dairy outlets. Awards could have been announced for market associations that self-regulated the no-plastic ban. Schoolchildren could have been made judges to report market-wise compliance by observing home-bound shoppers and publishing results.

Instead of hectoring people in the name of court orders (whose 2008 directions were really quite achievable), a great opportunity has perhaps been lost if the ongoing infringements are anything to go by. But a practical approach can succeed even now. Try it.

One thought on “How not to ban polythene bags

    C S Shan said:
    May 13, 2010 at 4:20 PM

    I don’t know why writers / coloumnist don’t give their e-mail ID to comment back? One of my known wants to reprint the article “MY FACE IS MY PASSPORT” BY – SHAILJA CHANDRA in his magazine Pune. Would you please provide her e-mail ID.

    Thank you

    C S Shan
    csshan@bilt.com

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