TNM takes a look at if and how businesses and customers have adapted to the plastic ban that came into force in the state in January this year.

Status check Six months after the plastic ban how has Tamil Nadu fared
news Plastic ban Friday, July 19, 2019 - 17:34

It’s been over six months since the Tamil Nadu government banned the use of non-biodegradable and single-use plastic products in the state. From plastic cups to food packaging, plastic covers to straws and flags, the ban was intended as an environment-friendly measure. Since the government provided a list of alternatives too, the move was welcomed at the time, notwithstanding concerns regarding its enforceability and a legal challenge from the plastic industry. However, with the passage of time, the usage of plastic bags or wrappers is not an uncommon sight in the city. Restaurants have returned to plastic packaging, especially the non-woven kind, which the government explicitly banned. So how have businesses and customers adapted – have they at all? And what is the way forward for government enforceability mechanisms?

Lack of viable alternatives

Sivagami, a flower-seller in Chennai, has neatly placed mounds of assorted flowers in front of her. The flowers are overflowing from their coconut shell cups. As she skilfully weaves garlands of jasmine, a customer says he forgot to bring a bag. “I can’t put the flowers in my big shopper with everything else,” he protests. Finally, Sivagami relents and gives him a transparent plastic bag.

“What can I do? They don’t listen to us. We are trying our best to follow the ban but customers insist on bags,” she says.

She slams what she terms the ‘hasty’ way in which the ban was implemented, with no sustained effort to encourage the use of alternatives. “They announced it in June last year and said from January we cannot use plastic. They had six months to tell us what to use and what not to use and where we can buy the new organic alternatives. But even after six months, we are clueless. Some people are using the plastic non-woven bags and someone else is saying even they are bad. There is no clarity. If they catch us and fine us, this is what we can tell them,” she says in frustration.

While supermarkets charge a king’s ransom for the cloth bags you forgot to bring, smaller grocery stores, like flower-sellers, have inevitably returned to plastic. Small business owners say that only a very small percentage of customers bother with bringing their own bags.

‘If we don’t provide plastic bags, someone else does’

In Madurai, the question ‘six months after the plastics ban was announced, is it still being followed?’ elicits hesitation at first, followed by reassurance. “Plastics have definitely reduced but the alternatives aren’t as viable,” shopkeepers tell us. “We’re doing our best to follow but they are those who don’t,” they add.

Vignesh, who runs a wholesale shop on Keela Masi Veedhi near Madurai’s Meenakshi Temple, has switched to packing groceries in paper pouches for his customers. They no longer supply dals and rice in sealed plastic covers unless it already comes packed in one. But for the ban to work, it is a two-way process. “When we say we don’t have plastic bags in our shop, the customer just goes to the next shop that will pack his products in plastic bags. In the end, it is all business,” he says.

Echoing Vignesh’s sentiments, Rajesh, a packaging shop owner in Chennai, says that the ban has created an inequality in the business environment. “It has definitely meant a decline in business for us. Earlier, we would buy plastic packaging in bulk and sell it for a profit of Rs 2 to Rs 5. I understand it is good for the environment. The initial enthusiasm made us think that people may really switch over to non-plastic alternatives. There was a good reception for it. We would even stock dhonnais (small leaf-woven bowls). But this has waned. Even if we don’t sell, someone else is selling plastic and calling it biodegradable. So they get the business,” he says as he arranges decks of areca nut plates.

The shopkeeper, however, says that they have been doing well this wedding season. While Rajesh sells the alternatives, his customers still want plastic items like plastic pouches, sheets and cling wrap for food packaging.

Government’s double standard?

In December last year, groups of plastic manufacturers from the state had called the plastic ban discriminatory and moved the Madras High Court. While the court eventually dismissed their plea, their allegation still stands: the use of plastics in many government sectors and large-scale private sectors continues, while the same is banned for the public and the small-scale private sector.

Illustrating this point P Ramaswamy, president of the Madurai Plastic Association, displays small quantities of cloves, cumin, cinnamon, bay leaves and other spices sealed in plastic packets and stapled to a chart sheet. Customers buy these packets, affordable and conveniently packed, to be used in their masalas for seasoning gravies and biriyani. Another had about 10 papads sealed into a plastic pouch and stapled to a chart just like the spices. The other was a long strip of Pantene shampoo sachets.

“See, the first two are packed by people at home, I’m talking about a scale smaller than cottage industries. They’ve used packing material that is easily available and cheaper. If these are confiscated, it will directly affect their livelihood. Meanwhile what about these shampoos? These are by big brands. Isn’t the same rule applicable to them? Why haven’t they stopped making such sachets?” he says.

Ramaswamy further adds that the alternatives are not profitable at all, affecting their local market. “The plates, cups and bowls made using betel nut leaves, sugarcane and mandarai leaves cost more than plastic packaging. Surely banning single-use plastic is a good move but business has gone down by 70%. Someone like me, who is the president of the association, cannot flout the rules. But there’s a market that still sells single-use plastic. It has become like a black market now,” he chuckles.

The way ahead

While the state has been fining violators of the plastic ban to the tune of several lakhs, officials say that this has not proved to be an effective punitive mechanism to keep them in check.

Madurai Corporation Commissioner S Visakan explains that the efforts are consistent and every change is a good change. “We’ve been conducting regular raids. We’ve also planned awareness programmes to help people adopt the change. The usage has definitely reduced and in Madurai, I assure you, the plastic ban has seen a better response than in the other cities I’ve observed. There are also no more manufacturers of single-use plastics within Madurai limits,” he tells us.

While the Chennai Corporation has collected Rs 45 lakh in fines from violators, the Madurai Corporation reports Rs 17.4 lakh in fines, seizing over 15,000 kg of banned items as of June. Sanitary Inspectors conduct regular raids and daily reports are submitted to the corporation.

“Efforts are consistent to ban single-use plastics. Plastics have reduced in the flower market and meat shop areas in Madurai. We can say the bulk stocks are reducing,” Visakan says.

Read: Tamil Nadu Plastic Ban 2019: List of banned items and eco-friendly alternatives

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