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Smitha is a homemaker in Malleshwaram, Bengaluru. Every time her husband gets vegetables from the market in lightweight white plastic carry bag, she saves it carefully. Everyday she puts one such plastic carry bag into the wastebin in her kitchen. She ties the carry bag with the wet and dry waste neatly and puts it for disposal everyday, for the BBMP garbage auto to take it away.
Smitha doesn’t care about what happens to this carry bag later—that it might end up in an animal’s stomach to kill it, or get thrown into drains, choking them and leading to floods during rains. The BBMP autos, hesitant to open a tied plastic waste bag, throw it into the mixed waste that ultimately reaches the landfill, while the real destination for kitchen waste should have been a biogas unit nearby.
Like her, most of the Bengalureans do not care about the negative impact of plastic carry bags on the environment. Though plastic carry bags are of small quantity when compared with the weight of the waste produced in the city, the nature of use they are put into poses a problem, according to waste management activists.
Using a plastic bag to put one’s waste also implies non-segregation of waste and derails the segregation-based system the BBMP and the state government are trying to build. This is why the state wants to put an end to plastic menace by banning the carry bags.
‘Plastic ban good for environment’
“If plastic bag usage is banned, it will boost the alternative sector as well as help the environment,” says Rekha Mavinakurve from Urvee Foundation.
At non-profit organisation Urvee, a team of 8 women not only produces eco-friendly paper and cloth bags, but also train other under-privileged women to create eco-friendly products independently. Ask about the demand for eco-friendly bags, Rekha says, their customers are only those who are concerned about the environment. “We are giving wide variety of products to the people and have sold a lot of products. The demand for these products will increase if plastic is banned,” she says.
Paper, cloth and jute products are good alternative to plastic but they too come with some limitations. Each type of bag has its own advantage depending the item that we carry, she adds.
Jute industry needs skilled labour
Saurav Modi, CEO of Just Jute (a Bengaluru-based jute products manufacturing industry) sees two deterrents in jute becoming an alternative to plastic. Firstly, jute products are way too expensive compared to plastic-based products. A jute bag costs 20 times more than the plastic carry bag, which is not affordable for common man. Secondly, finding skilled labour to work in jute industry is a challenging task. Since jute industry is not highly profitable, these industries cannot pay good salary to their workers. Therefore, labourers prefer garment industry over jute industry in Karnataka, he explains.
Since it is difficult for jute to become an easy alternative to plastic, it may not be possible for the jute industry to create as many jobs that are lost if the plastic industries are closed. Also, creation of new jobs in the green industry depends on how effective the ban on plastic products is implemented, opines Saurav Modi.
“Over the years, demand for jute has increased, but it is not upto the mark. When I started Just Jute in 2004, there were only 4-5 jute products manufacturers in Bengaluru, where as now the number has shot up to at least 40,” he says. At present, the major customers for jute bags industry are corporate companies, which is followed by individuals who order jute products in bulk to be gifted during family functions.
Non-woven bags may get demand
Rajendra Kothari, proprietor of Adishwar Textile Fabric, believes non-woven bags could be a good alternative to plastic. Non-woven carry bags which are already in demand, with many big retailers and supermarkets opting for it, could be preferred if the plastic carry bags are banned, he says.
He believes non-woven fabric, which is also called as chinese jute, could replace plastic over cloth bags, because cloth bag industry does not have automation support in India. He also disagrees with the contention that non-woven fabrics are as bad as plastic. “Non-woven fabric is degradable. They become powder when mixed with soil and they are not dangerous,” he contends.
City activists who work on waste management don’t agree with this theory. Meera Nair, a waste management activist living near Bellandur, has this to say: “I think they just say whatever suits the market needs of the moment. No real research. They market ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags. And people would love to use them for their waste bins. But the devil is in the details. Unless these bags are exposed well to sunlight, they don’t degrade. And in a landfill piled up with thousands of bags, any guesses as to how much sun exposure?”
According to Vignan Gowda who runs a campaign on renting bags instead of buying plastic bags, nonwoven materials are as bad as plastic. Though he started the campaign with bags made of nonwoven material, now Rent a Bag campaign uses cloth bags. So, though non-woven bags might provide some employment, the question will be whether it is sustainable.
Demand for alternatives not high at the moment
MITU (Multiple Initiatives Towards Upliftment) Foundation, a non-governmental organisation based in Malleswaram collects tailoring waste in bulk on a regular basis. The collected cloth materials of all types are then distributed to around 30 women from low income groups in Yeshwanthpur, HMT Layout and other areas. Making cloth and paper bags is a source of income for these informal groups who earn around Rs 6,000-Rs 8,000 a month.
MITU buys those bags from the producers and sells them to customers, at stores as well as online. “Despite making innovative attempts to produce environment-friendly bags, these products do not have great demand in market,” says Kala Charlu, Founder of MITU.
MITU’s environment-friendly products are mostly done by recycling waste clothes and newspapers. “Paper bags though cannot handle heavy weight, can be used to carry a few light weighing items. We sell a medium size paper bag with a handle at Rs 4. But there are no takers for these bags. Vendors say that customers do not prefer these bags, hence they don’t purchase. Off all the paper bags we produce, there is some demand for paper envelopes and covers, which the chemists buy,” Kala says.
Lack of demand for paper bags is because it has less lifespan and carrying capacity. But the situation is no different for cloth bags too. “We produce a wide variety of cloth bags ranging from fashionable bags to goofy bags. Goofy bags are a good alternative to plastic carry bags, for they are strong and rough. But again, people do not prefer goofy bags owing to the rustic look (it is made out of multi-coloured waste clothes). People prefer a product which has a good appearance,” she observes.
The cost of a reusable goofy bag is Rs 8. The proposed ban on certain plastic products including plastic carry bags, can do wonders to green industry, believes Kala Charlu. “Green industry is already giving employment to a lot of people. If the ban on certain plastic products is implemented effectively, it will boost the alternative industries like cloth and jute,” says Kala. She hopes that people will at least then consider buying alternative bags.
‘Ban may boost other industry’
On the entire fear surrounding the plastic industries of facing closure and the argument of it paving way for job creation in alternative industry, Vinod Vyasulu, an economist and one of the founders of Centre for Budget and Policy Studies says this circle is quite natural to happen.
“I cannot quantify how many people will lose jobs and how many new jobs will be created, but if one particular sector gets closed, automatically an alternative sector will boom creating new jobs,” he says.
Anupam Manur, a policy analyst with Thakshashila Institution of Public Policy, agrees with Vyasulu. The loss of jobs, if any, will be offset by the reduction of the huge negative externalities that plastic use puts on society. People who are employed by the plastic industry with basic skills can be easily transferred to other jobs.
A ban on plastic will immediately push up demand for other close substitutes, such as cloth bags and paper bags (as is the case in other states that have banned plastic). This increased demand for cloth bags will create demand for labour. The cloth and paper bags will be produced by small scale industries, cottage industries, etc. If paper or cloth bags replace plastic bags, labour can easily migrate to those industries, which will have newly created demand for unskilled labour, adds Manur.
“It is the net effect [on the society] that has to be observed. There was a huge hue and cry from labour unions when bank computerisation took place. However, it was quickly found that the losses in bank jobs were more than compensated by new better-paying jobs in the IT industry, many of whom created software for the banks to work on,” he says.
Envt dept doesn’t buy plastic industries’ arguments
For all the arguments and apprehensions put forth by plastic manufacturers, Madan Gopal, Additional Chief Secretary to the Department of Forest, Environment and Ecology has counter arguments to make.
Speaking to Citizen Matters, he negated the apprehensions raised by plastic manufacturers that banning plastic products will lead to closure of the industry and loss of livelihood. “We have proposed to ban only six products. Most of the plastic industries manufacture multiple plastic based products. Therefore, even if we ban a few products, they can continue manufacturing other plastic products such as buckets and boxes. There is no reason to fear for registered industries,” he asserted, saying that only the units operating illegally will be under threat.
He also said that the Environment Department had come up with the proposal to ban certain plastic products after consulting the Finance Department. The Finance Department has done an assessment of the plastic industries and has concluded that the ban will not affect them.
However, he said that banning certain plastic products might affect the industry in minor ways, but it was inevitable in the larger interest of the society. Madan Gopal who was earlier the principal secretary in the Department of Health and Family Welfare, recalled how the ban on smoking in public places was introduced. When the department drafted a regulation to ban smoking in public places, five writ petitions were filed in different courts, but the courts dismissed all those petitions. “We are confident that the same will happen in the case of plastic ban too,” he said.
‘90% responses on draft notification support the ban’
He added that it was quite natural for vested interests to raise objections. “We are ready to fight in the court if the manufacturers approach the court of law. The decision will be taken in the larger interest of the society. Of the over 2,000 objections and suggestions that the department has received for the draft notification, 90 per cent of them have welcomed the proposal,” the officer said.
He emphasised that banning plastic products is the only solution to curb the plastic menace. The earlier criteria of banning plastic carry bags below 40 microns was an obstacle in the process of enforcement. Since the technology used for the production of plastic bags and sheets with thickness of both above and below 40 microns is same, it was practically difficult to monitor the production and sale of these plastics. A blanket ban on plastic carry bags will lead to effective monitoring, he pointed.
However, Madan Gopal did not buy the argument of plastic manufacturers that the State government’s move is in violation of Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act, 1986. “There is an amendment to the Environment Act which delegates power to the States to take decisions on emergency matters,” he told Citizen Matters.
On the department’s preparedness to enforce the ban, he said the department was ready with an action plan. “We have received objections and suggestions from public (November 28th was the last date for filing objection), which will be examined by a three-member expert committee. After careful examination, the department will prepare a final notification, which will also go to cabinet again for the approval,” he said.
All the designated officers including those from Environment, Food and Civil Supplies, KSPCB, deputy commissioners and city municipality commissioners will be delegated with the power to implement the ban effectively. The government has thought of clothes and jute products as an alternative to plastic, he noted.
‘Total plastic ban impossible’
What is the solution for the low grade plastic used in sachets and pre-weighed and packed items like bread and groceries? Madan Gopal says banning such plastic is not practical and not possible for the time being.
Responding to the demands of green activists for complete ban on plastic, he said it is practically not possible. “By banning six products, we believe the demand for plastic will gradually come down. Lack of demand will automatically stop the manufacturing of plastic,” he observes.
What other cities teach us about plastic ban? How has the ban been implemented in other countries, Indian states and cities in Karnataka? Coming up in the last article in the series.
Plastic ban: 25,000 to lose jobs; Industry seeks solutions
File your objections or suggestions on plastic ban before Nov 27, 2015
Plastic producers vow to help enforce ban on plastic below 40 microns
Yes or no to plastic bags?
If there is no ban, how to deal with the plastic?