A month after TN plastic ban, small hotels and streetside shacks still confused

While some blame the government for its lack of clarity, an official from Tamil Nadu’s Pollution Control Board tell us that the government is constantly involved in creating awareness regarding the ban.
A month after TN plastic ban, small hotels and streetside shacks still confused
A month after TN plastic ban, small hotels and streetside shacks still confused
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Guna, who likes to add the prefix ‘Kodambakkam’ to his name, has been running a roadside eatery for over 22 years in the Kodambakkam’s Mahalingapuram area. His compact stall made of stainless steel pulls in a steady crowd from as early as 7 am every morning. He offers steaming hot idlies and omelettes, crispy vadai, poori and dosa with sambar, chutney and potato curry sides. Customers crowd around his stall, some with plates and others choosing to pack their morning tiffin to go.

He has lined his plates with round-cut banana leaves instead of the butter sheets used earlier, and uses shiny plastic pouches and non-woven bags as alternatives for plastic packets and plastic bags. While Guna supports the plastic ban, he says that he has stocked these items for want of better alternatives. “The pouches that I’m using now might have plastic in them but this is being used by everyone now. I think these are capable of being recycled,” he tells TNM.

This lack of clarity on the state plastic ban is the case with most roadside food stalls and small hotels in Tamil Nadu.

Lack of clarity

The Government order on the ban offers little help in drawing the line between allowed plastics and banned items. The Government order lists plastic sheets used for food wrapping, spreading on dining tables, plastic plates, plastic coated tea cups and plastic tumblers, water pouches and packets, plastic straw, plastic carry bag and plastic flags irrespective of thickness as banned items.

While the order banned all single use plastics (irrespective of micron size), later the Government exempted certain items from the banned list.

Plastic bags manufactured for exports, plastic bags which constitute or form an integral part of packaging in which goods are sealed prior to use at manufacturing/processing units, plastic bags and sheets used in forestry and horticulture nurseries, milk and milk products, oil, medicine and medical equipment, carry bags made from compostable plastics bearing the labeled “Compostable” and conforming to the Indian Standard IS or ISO 17088:2008 can be used.

And here it is that the effectiveness of the ban falters. Though there are a few who try to practise a plastic-free lifestyle, there are those who find loopholes to work around the ban.

While high-end cafes, restaurants and hotels have switched to alternatives like cloth bags, aluminium foil sheets, and plat fibre boxes, it is quite evident that small hotels and roadside joints are grappling to find similar alternatives while maintaining affordable costs. They've replaced the usual plastic bags with non woven bags and plastic covers with “ISO” labels on them. The plastic pouches for sambar are now replaced with shiny pouches, which some hoteliers are claiming to be aluminium foil covers. 

While some blame the government for the confusion, an official from Tamil Nadu’s Pollution Control Board notes that the government is constantly involved in creating awareness regarding the ban. “Yet there are a few who try to find easier routes and continue using plastics. We try as much as we can to conduct frequent raids and inform them on what’s allowed and what’s not. It might take some time to see a change in attitude among people as well,” he says.

Finding alternatives

While Guna has tried to switch to alternatives, he encourages his customers to bring their own vessels to carry liquid food items like sambar and chutney. “Some of them bring but some don’t. In such cases we use the packets and the bags. Most often people bring their own bags now,” he adds.

How is he managing the change in prices? “Plantain leaves that we purchased for Rs 400 have now becomes Rs 700 to Rs 800. I’ve now raised the price of all my tiffin items by one rupee but more price change will not be welcomed by my customers. We’ll have to bear the losses,” he says.

While speaking, a customer walks up to Guna’s stall and hands him steel tiffin boxes to pack his breakfast. J Manikandan a resident of Viswanathapuram says that he usually has a pair of steel boxes in his vehicle boot for such purposes. “The plastic ban has to be encouraged. As much as I can, I travel with my own vessels to buy parcel food in hope that more people follow suit,” he says.

A few meters away from Guna’s stall, Raja, who has been running a fast food joint along with his brother, has also been using the shiny plastic covers, non woven bags and sheets with a shiny coating on one side to pack their meals. “Rates of packing material have definitely increased, doubled actually, but it is too early for us to increase prices with our customers. For now we are charging usual rates, no extra for packing,” says Raja.

Muthu, manager of Sree Balaji Bhavan, a hotel in Chennai’s Pondy Bazaar takes us to the hotel’s packing area. It is rush hour lunch time and employees from online delivery services make a beeline to the parcel counter. Here, the use of plastics is quite evident, displaying a variety of plastic trays, small boxes and plastic covers.

“These plastic items are allowed, they do not fall under the ban. However, we reduce Rs 10 from the bill if customers bring their own vessels to pack food. We’ve listed quantity amount so we don’t end up packing too much or too little,” says Muthu.

He also shows us a milky white plastic bag that weights less then a feather, words like “compostable”, “CIPET Certified”, “CPCB Certified” printed in green, bold letters.

“We’ve now placed an order for these plastic bags. There’s a great demand and so we’re yet to get. See, these bags are allowed. It has IS/ISO certification,” he says.

How has the ban fared so far?

The plastic ban came into effect on New Year’s Day in Tamil Nadu. The government listed a total of 14 plastic items that are to be banned in the state and this includes plastic cutlery like plates, spoons, straws, and cups, plastic sheets, plastic coated bags, plastic bags and the likes.

Yet, the use of plastics in packing industry is quite undeniable, more so when it comes to packing food. An official from Chennai Corporation notes that since the ban, officials have seized close to 70 tonnes of banned plastic across 15 zones in city, from markets, hotels, retail shops, malls and roadside shops. In a month, this number stands at 87.34 tonnes of banned plastic items.

According to a report in Times of India, on January 30 officials seized over 1,000 kilograms of banned plastic items like plastic trays, cups, bags, tumblers, rolls and straws from Saravana Bhavan Vadapalani branch in Chennai. Sources say that the corporation is yet to decide what to do with seized items as they are not being dumped in yards. 

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