India bans single-use plastic but critics say country 'not ready' for change

19 items, from forks, spoons, straws, trays and ear buds, have been banned

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India has imposed a ban on single-use plastic from Friday in a bid to tackle a leading source of environment pollution.

India's Environment Ministry has banned 19 single-use plastic items, from forks, spoons, straws, trays and ear buds, wrapping or packaging films on sweet boxes and cigarette packets and PVC banners of less than 100 microns.

But critics say companies are "not ready" to put alternatives in place.

Single-use plastics are those disposed of after one use, which cannot be recycled. They often end up in landfill, rivers or oceans, contributing to pollution and disrupting the ecosystem long term.

“A defining step to curb pollution caused by littered and unmanaged plastic waste is being taken by the country,” said the country's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

The government has banned manufacturing, import, stocking and distribution of the single-use plastic items.

Anyone found using the banned products could be fined 100,000 rupees ($1,265) or be sentenced to five years in jail — or both.

Inspection teams have been set up at national and state level for the enforcement of the ban and border checkpoints have been established to monitor interstate movement of the banned products.

In the capital, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee has fanned out 15 teams to ensure the rules are not flouted.

India, the world’s second most populous nation of 1.3 billion, generates 3.5 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said in April.

Of that total, about 240,000 tonnes is single-use, the Central Pollution Control Board said.

Pulses packed in single-use plastic bags at a market stall in Chennai on Friday. Some experts expect problems from unprepared manufacturers and consumers unwilling to pay more. AFP

Heaped plastic waste along roadsides are a common sight. Plastic waste chokes drainage, rivers and waterways and ends up in overflowing landfill sites that regularly catch fire.

Cows can be seen munching on discarded milk packets and chocolate wrappers in many towns and cities.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had planned to phase out the single-use plastic by 2020, but the plan was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and unpreparedness of industry bodies, which have been urging the government to delay the prohibition.

Balakrishna Bhartia, president of the Confederation of All India Traders, told The National: “It is very easy to impose a ban and we have no issue because we agree that environment protection is a must, but what better alternative has the government brought to shift the usage?

"The ban must be delayed so better alternatives can be developed."

Plastic manufacturers have rued that the alternatives of the single-use plastic suggested by the authorities, such as biodegradable cutlery and bamboo straws, are expensive and the ban would cost them millions of dollars in losses.

Cows rummage through plastic bags filled with rubbish at a dumping site in Faridabad, India. AFP

Kishore Sampat, president of the All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association, told The National that the ban would affect more than 80,000 companies that make single-use plastic items.

“This is a big change as companies are not ready with the alternatives," he said. "There has been billions of investment in machinery which will go to waste."

He said Mr Modi’s government should instead establish better recycling infrastructure.

“Alternatives to plastic, whether it is paper or wood, are three to four times costlier and not available for mass production,” he said. "We request ... a proper recycling infrastructure which is a solution."

Some environment experts have welcomed the ban but say enforcement will be a challenge given the size of the country.

Similar plastic bans have been passed by more than half a dozen state governments in the past, but have rarely been successful.

Priti Mahesh, an environmentalist and chief programme co-ordinator at Toxics Link, a non-profit environmental group in Delhi, said the ban could be effective if it is strictly implemented.

“There have been previous bans but they have not been very successful because implementation was not strong,” Ms Mahesh said.

"One big change this time is that it is a nationwide ban so there is a uniformity which will help If the government is serious and the enforcement is done seriously, then the ban can be very effective.”

The environmentalist suggested a large enforcement mechanism and involvement of citizens to help reduce unnecessary plastic waste.

“Citizen groups need to be involved otherwise it will be difficult as we are a huge country,” she said. "The kind of materials banned are not used large-scale but in shops, enterprises. Just relying on the regulatory system will be very difficult."

Updated: July 01, 2022, 11:38 AM