Why You Can’t Ban Single-Use Plastic Overnight

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Why You Can’t Ban Single-Use Plastic Overnight

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

And here we go, once again. The government rushes to implement something without thinking through the consequences. It was with much fanfare that it aimed to ban single-use plastics on the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi – a fitting tribute, except it didn’t account for life after the ban. It would be the sanitary equivalent of a parent suddenly deciding to wean their baby off the bottle, not realising the nuisance it is likely to create. But like a new parent, the powers that be have learnt with experience. Oh well, at least this time, they had the good sense to roll back the ban before we saw something like the severe after-effects of demonetisation and the post-GST kick in the economic nuts.

As for single-use plastic, people still need to carry stuff around, companies still need to ship their wares in something, and lakhs of people work in the industry. It’s not something that can be achieved simply by carrying a reusable cloth bag to do your sabzi shopping. Yes, plastic is harmful for the environment, but banning it will have the same effect as the alcohol embargo in engineering college hostels. 

So a rollback for the ban, predictably, happened when it was clear the country and economy was in no way prepared for such a drastic change. So why the hurry to announce it at all? Optics, of course. What a message it would be, especially during the age of Greta Thunberg, to send political opponents, the media, and the world, that plastics have been banned on this auspicious day, much like how the country is now (apparently) 100 per cent open-defecation free.

It’s not like the government was treading on virgin territory here. Countries all over the world – many with social and economic challenges similar to our own – have tried various models of getting rid of plastic for decades. There’s lots of literature out there, and the trends are unmissable for anyone who’s looking for them. For instance, last year, the United Nations put out a comprehensive report looking at every single plastic ban or reduction initiative. Every. Single. One. From countries ranging from the US to Papua New Guinea. 

And if someone had taken the effort to read that report or even just look at the executive summary if time-starved (those statues won’t build themselves you know!), they would know that a ban like the one India was looking at would fail miserably. Previous such efforts – without investing in viable alternatives – led to people ignoring the ban, or leading to a black market (as in Kenya, Cameroon, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe). It’s not like people love plastic – they need its functionality. So unless there’s an alternative which is easily available and cheap, people will find a way to revert to using what they used before, especially if enforcement is lax.

Bans are, in fact, successful only when a few basics are taken care of: Public awareness campaigns, investing in alternatives (encouraging use of paper and cloth bags, for example), creating an efficient recycling process, and then, systematically, creating economic incentives to switch from plastics. 

The last point, in particular, has been successful globally – nothing educates better than good ol’ economics. Whenever a small price is levied on the consumption of plastics, without making it illegal, people will find a way to use alternatives. But, as we’ve seen in the past, our government believes imposition will be more effective than choice. It rarely is. If you look through that UN study, every country that has successfully managed to reduce its plastic consumption, at some point has levied a tax, either on the producer, seller, or consumer. Heck, Botswana managed to reduce plastic bag use by 50 per cent in 18 months by enforcing a levy.

We then need to find viable, scalable solutions that help companies carry on with business without plastics, at a price that doesn’t hurt it or the consumer.

But hey, our government is all about optics – how un-populist would it appear if they said we needed to pay more for plastic? Unlike other cesses like education, there’s no “poor” beneficiary to help spin doctors inveigle a nice message. 

The other solutions that have helped countries reduce plastic are unlikely to be adopted by India: “We built an efficient nation-wide recycling system!” or “we commissioned a study to look at plastic alternatives!” doesn’t sound as sexy as “No more plastics in India, we da best, BMKJ!”. Unfortunately, no country has managed to effect a ban successfully without going through these boring steps, and there is no reason to think India can do otherwise. Forget the economy grinding to a halt, lives will grind to a halt if you just took plastics out of the equation. And no, it’s not just about us urban elites telling Zomato to hold the cutlery (#greenwarrior). If implemented the ban will affect nearly 10,000 manufacturing units, rendering close to four lakh workers jobless. 

We then need to find viable, scalable solutions that help companies carry on with business without plastics, at a price that doesn’t hurt it or the consumer. To be fair, some companies are experimenting with this. While your local upmarket smoothie bar using paper straws is unlikely to make that much of a dent, large plastics-heavy companies like Unilever, Coke, Pepsi and Bisleri committing to achieve recyclable packaging does. Even popular events are getting in on the act – the NH7 Weekender music festival uses recyclable food plates, and Kyoorius’ DesignYatra offsets the conference’s entire carbon footprint (including flights by attendees and speakers) by planting trees. 

As much as these are feel-good stories for us, all these are a drop in the ocean – the larger push has to come at a policy level. 

Now, if you’re thinking this is something that only the richest countries have the luxury to do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised – or disappointed. Innovations and inspiration can come from some of the poorest countries – Indonesia offered free bus rides in exchange for plastic bottles. And surely, nothing can be more inspiring than the once war-ravaged Rwanda, which, instead of punitive action, encouraged recycling, invested in paper, and now is one of the cleanest countries on earth.

I make no bones about it: Plastic is destroying the planet and needs to be replaced. But trying to Thanos it away is not going to work. Don’t take my word for it, take that of 150+ countries. Moving on from plastic is a lofty, admirable goal but it requires effort, and unlike previous attempts, creative mathematics will not save it here. So don’t be surprised if you don’t hear anything on this front for a few years. 

Our ruling government has shown time and again it’s more interested in easy headlines, rather than effectiveness. Swachh Bharat itself being a good example: A few brooms, some brainwashed celebrities, some clever captions, LOTS of cameras, and boom! Look at when Swachh Bharat tried to achieve something tangible: 100 per cent ODF status for rural India. However, in the country’s financial capital, right here in Mumbai, people are still defecating on railway tracks. Leading to piles of poop accumulating – an apt metaphor for where we are today.

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