The Kerala government had announced a complete ban on single-use plastic products in January 2020.

Woman wearing jeans and sneakers, walking with a plastic bag with vegetables. Only her legs are visible in the picture.Image for representation
news Waste Management Monday, February 01, 2021 - 12:40

In January 2020, the Kerala government announced a complete ban on the sale, storage, manufacturing and transportation of single-use plastic products across the state. As per the rule, wholesalers, retailers or plastic producers found in possession of such plastic products — plastic carry (polyethene) bags, disposable cups and plates, straws and plastic wrappers — had to pay a fine of Rs 10,000 for the first offence, Rs 25,000 for the second, and on further violation, Rs 50,000 would be levied on the violator.

Civic and police officials started cracking down on stores, conducting frequent raids and seizing tonnes of plastic carry bags. Within a few weeks of its implementation, plastic bags almost completely disappeared from shops. The ban was touted to be a daring move. However, it seems that the ban and the crackdown on violators did not sustain longer, especially since the pandemic began.

A year since the ban, from wayside vendors to wholesalers, many have started using plastic carry bags once again. Only a few supermarkets, branded showrooms and some big retail outlets have been following the rule.

Thiruvananthapuram city was one of the first places in the state where the plastic bag ban was first introduced, even before the statewide ban. Though there were a few protests by merchants, the ban had a positive effect. Fearing the heavy fine, retailers stopped storing and giving away plastic bags. As a result, customers had to start carrying reusable bags.

But when shops reopened after the lockdown, plastic bags gradually started reappearing. Over the last few months, Kerala is back to square one.

"We got rid of all plastic carry bags in our shop by February 2020. But during and after the lockdown, everyone started using them again. There were no raids, too. Customers also started demanding plastic bags. So we started using them," said a grocery shop owner from Thirumala in Thiruvananthapuram.

Another street vendor from Poojappura, who sells fruits, said customers are happy when they are given plastic carry bags. "For us business is important. People don't like it when we deny carry bags. So why should we bother about bigger things when there are no raids by the police," he said.

However, there are still a few people who stick to the rules.

"We don't use plastic bags. Customers do ask for free plastic bags, but we provide cloth bags and charge them. Many are not happy with this, but we don't bother. We should be environmentally responsible too," said Rekha, who runs a flour mill and sells spices and flours in Thiruvananthapuram.

Why plastic bags made a comeback

Along with plastic bags, disposable cups and plates were also banned. But in view of the pandemic, the government ordered that they can be used at eateries. “When that was exempted, other plastic items also returned. This was also because the raids stopped. Officials were busy with COVID-19 duty. So everybody took the situation for granted," said Shibu K Nair, India coordinator of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) Asia Pacific and a veteran in zero-waste initiatives in Kerala.

It’s not just the small-scale retailers, but even some top brand showrooms in Thiruvananthapuram have started giving polythene bags, he added.

An official from Thiruvananthapuram Corporation concurred. "The health standing committee of the Corporation was focused on COVID-19 containment activities. There was a shortage of staff in the police force, too, to follow up. Also, there were relaxations in some aspects and we were not sure how to manage all types of plastic products," said a staff member from the Corporation, who did not want to be named, adding that the ban was a success only in the beginning.

Meanwhile, a group of manufacturers had earlier filed a petition in the Kerala High Court, asking permission to dispose off the existing stock of plastic carry bags. The HC had directed the government to take a decision on this petition. A week ago, the Environment and Climate Change Department rejected the request from the manufacturers and said that the plastic ban will be implemented more effectively and that no relaxations will be given.

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.