As recently as a few months ago, footwear manufacturer Bata was fined Rs 9,000 in a consumer court ruling after a customer complained about the company charging an additional Rs 3 for a carry bag.
The consumer court in Chandigarh fined the company on the grounds that a) if the consumer had made a purchase from the shop, it was the responsibility of the company to provide the consumer with a cloth or paper bag and b) that the company, by printing its logo on the bag, was actually marketing its products.
It was back in 2011 that the Environment Ministry made it mandatory to charge for plastic bags. This was done with an intention to reduce the number of plastic bags that were produced, only to be discarded. They would ultimately reach landfills where they would remain in various forms for long periods of time. The rule was aimed at discouraging the use of plastic bags and encouraging consumers to bring their own shopping bags. This measure seems to have borne fruit – the top 50 retailers in the country reported a drastic reduction in the consumption of plastic bags, from around 2,100 tonnes to 900 tonnes per month.
While plastic bags were altogether banned and replaced by paper or cloth bags, retailers continued to charge customers for them despite the absence of any law that allowed them to do so. And with the case of Bata and many such stores, it has been made clear that it is illegal to charge for paper and cloth bags.
Since the Bata incident, many customers have taken to demanding free paper and cloth bags, quoting the recent court order. But some say the move defeats the progress made towards customers bringing in reusable bags.
“The cost is being paid by the planet, not the retailer or the shopper,” writes Bengaluru-based social activist and writer Odette Katrak on the Twitter handle of her NGO, Beautiful Bengaluru. “The simple psychology of pay-for-what-you-take is the best way to push people to bring their own reusable bags – a solution the planet is crying out for.”
She tells TNM, “When something is free, it means the consumer does not value it and will keep on looking for more free stuff.”
“When they started charging for plastic bags, the consumption came down tremendously. When customers believe it’s their right, they will keep fighting for it,” Odette says.
“It costs resources to make that bag, why should the company give it free? Why should the retailer give it free? Let that cost be shared by the customer and the retailer so that the retailer can subsidise the bag,” she says.
Sandeep Anirudhan, a sustainability activist based in Bengaluru, says, “It’s actually good to make people pay so that they don’t consume a lot.” He adds, “Even environmentally friendly things, if consumed in large numbers, become environmentally unfriendly. We should try to reduce and reuse.”
A UG student in Bengaluru, Saradha U, says, “As a consumer, yes, I am getting the perks [from the consumer court judgement] but you have to look at the environment in the long run. About companies putting their logos on the bags, it’s not as if the other commodities that people ‘buy’ do not carry company logos.”