Millennium Post

The plastic challenge

Over two years ago the Delhi government imposed a blanket ban on manufacturing, use, and sale of plastic bags in the national Capital. The ban, however, has remained ineffective as plastic bags are still manufactured, used, and sold with almost no control of any government agency at any point whatsoever. These bags are to be found everywhere in the city, every time you go out to shop – from street vendors to big markets, from vegetable and fruit sellers to medical stores – plastic bags find their way into the drains, parks, and roads.

The claimed commitment by  the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in its electoral manifesto to enforce ban on plastic bags in the city brings  the issue back in the limelight. “What imposes ban on plastic bags is yet to be adjudicated in the Delhi High Court, but Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011 passed by the Parliament is applicable,” said Kulanad Joshi, Additional Secretary, Department of Environment. As per the provisions of Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011, manufacturing and use of plastic bags of less than 40 micron thickness is prohibited and the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) has the power to seal such manufacturing units.

“As per the existing provision a police complaint can also be lodged against offender,” added Joshi. When asked about the action taken by the government agencies, Joshi admitted it was ‘rarely’ executed. The Central law also prohibits the retailers from  providing “free of cost” plastic bags to the customers, and clearly directs the concerned civic bodies to fix price of plastic bags as per their quality. It also prohibits use of non-woven plastic bags. These rules are openly  violated in every small and big market in Delhi from street vendors  to whole sale and retailers.

“Delhi failed miserably to implement ban on plastic bags in the city. The traders are aware of  the ban but they cite lack of alternative as a reason to continue the use of plastic bags and other packaging materials in the city”, said Priti Mahesh, chief project coordinator of Toxic Link, an NGO.

In their study of effectiveness of ban on plastic bags in three cities – Delhi, Chandigarh, and Gangtok – they found Delhi to be least performing while Gangtok was on the top. “Over 90 per cent traders use banned plastic bags in Delhi, except some branded shops and shopping mall that have started using paper bags in stead  and charge extra for carry bags”, she added.

According to experts, the three main reasons behind failure of ban on plastic bags in Delhi are – lack of alternative packaging material, lack of enforcement, and lack of awareness. The Central law requires municipal corporations and states to submit an annual report on implementation of plastic waste management. This was never submitted from Delhi. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi is not even aware of  their role in imposing the ban and plastic waste management. “It is a matter of Environment Department of Delhi government. We don’t have to do anything. We, however,
collect the garbage be it plastic or municipal waste without any discrimination”, said Y S Maan,  spokesperson of North and East MCDs.

“Plastic bags are not the problem but the littering is”, argues Ravi Kumar Aggarwal, President of All India Plastic Industries Association (AIPIA). AIPIA is the body which   represents  the plastic manufactures in the legal fight of “ban on plastic bags” in Delhi High Court. “It’s the matter of municipal waste management. If these plastic bags are picked up and recycled where is the problem. The problem arises when you litter with it. It is easier to collect plastic bags than other bags from water as it floats. It can be just picked up but government agencies and civic bodies pass the buck,” contends Aggarwal.

As a solution to this problem, he supports the rules of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to ban plastics of less than 40 micron thickness. “The market value of thick plastic bags is higher and it is easy to collect them after use. So it can be collected and recycled easily”, said Aggarwal suggesting a “practical’’ approach. The Association also criticises the campaign of Delhi government’s Environment Ministry, “Say No to Plastic Bags’’ and termed it highly negative. “This is highly negative campaign so it cannot succeed. The campaign should be ‘Do not Litter’ which will attract participation of every stake holder”, he argued.

Contrary to his view, environment activists demand complete ban due to the highly toxic and non-biodegradable nature of plastic bags. “The plastic bags come in such a huge quantity and poor quality that ill equipped civic bodies can’t collect and process them. Furthermore, these plastic manufactures don’t share any responsibility in collection and recycling of used plastic bags,” said Priti Mahesh.

Interestingly, the government does not have any credible data on the quantity of plastic bags being used in the city. However, a rough estimate of the Department of Environment of Delhi government suggests that about 574 TPD of plastic waste is generated in Delhi. The ban on plastic bags is gaining ground worldwide and the above stated rules were framed based on  the directions from Delhi High Court and judgements from the Supreme Court. Although plastic bags did not come into widespread use until the early 1980s, environmental groups estimate that 500 billion to one trillion of the bags are now used worldwide every year. The environment activists put forward these arguments to impose a blanket ban on the use of plastic bags – they clog waterways, damage the landscape, take 1,000 years disintegrate and even then its smaller degenerated particles pollute the soil and water.

Plastic bags also pose a serious danger to birds and animals that often mistake them for food – thousands of cows die due to eating plastic bags; and its production too is a significant pollutant as it requires millions of gallons of petroleum that could be used for transportation and/or heating.

“Cows don’t eat plastic bags, they eat it only when some vegetable or food is left packed in the litter”, argues Aggarwal. The fear of thousands of people earning their livelihood from plastic industry of losing their jobs  is another argument of AIPIA. But the environmentalists cite successful examples of Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. “We are working on the issue. We will definitely come with solutions.” says Ashish Khetan, Vice Chairman of Delhi Dialogue Commission. The previous Congress government under the regime of Sheila Dikshit had tried to enforce a blanket ban on plastic bags with effect from November 22, 2012 in the city and also popularise alternative means of packaging like jute bags. Following the order of the government several traders were fined and challans were issues against 36 malls and shopping complexes by DPCC which was quashed by Delhi High Court on February 22, 2012.

“It is laughable that you can bring medicines, medical consumables, ice-creams, sweets, clothing, gutkhas, all packed in plastics but they can’t be carried in plastic bags,” argues Aggarwal.

It is too early to comment on the ability of the new Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi to enforce the ban but banning plastic bags is definitely a challenge which needs strong willpower and noble intention.
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