Maharashtra's rushed ban

The Maharashtra government's decision to ban the manufacture, use, sale, distribution and storage of plastic materials is unexceptionable in terms of intent. This must be done to mitigate the generation of toxic waste. Though India has a low per capita consumption, it is still a major contributor to global toxicity due to poor waste management practices and the sheer size of the population.  Apart from choking India's landmass, contaminating drinking water, killing animals, plastics flowing down India's rivers are estimated to contribute as much as 60 per cent of global ocean contamination. As such, it is imperative that alternatives be found, given the multiple associated health and environmental hazards. Although the industry says it will see up to 300,000 job losses and adverse impacts along the whole value chain, a cleaner environment will lead to lower health costs for all, apart from protecting the biosphere for future generations. Moreover, as eco-friendly alternatives such as jute and recyclable categories of plastics replace toxic "thin" plastics, new employment opportunities will surely be created. Carry bag production using cloth can create more jobs than machines using plastic pellets.

The implementation and success of this measure will be a test case, even though Maharashtra is the 25th Indian state to impose a ban on plastics. As a large, highly industrialised state, Maharashtra is responsible for generating the largest quantity of plastic waste — 460,000 tonnes per annum. The compliance record in most Indian states is very poor and the bans exist only in name. However, there have been success stories. Sikkim, for example, has greatly reduced plastic usage after imposing a ban way back in 1998. Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand also claim reductions in plastic use. Any policy that aims to reduce plastic use must be well designed to induce behavioural changes at several levels— from usage to disposal. Countries in the European Union use carrot-and-stick taxation policies, imposing heavy taxes on certain categories of plastic while offering incentives to make and use eco-friendly substitutes. They have also developed superior waste-management methods. 

India has done none of this even though the prime minister made a pledge on this year’s World Environment Day that the country would do away with all single-use plastics by 2022. But this goal is not yet backed by a holistic action plan. The policy framework in Maharashtra is also far from ideal. The government offered a three-month "grace period" to eliminate existing stocks and find alternatives. It now intends to impose drastic penalties, including large fines and potential jail terms for violations. However, there is much confusion amongst the general populace and user-industries, as to which categories are permissible and which are banned. Clearly, there was scope for much better public outreach — especially, in terms of possible alternatives — and consultations with all the stakeholders to ensure that the ban was implemented smoothly. Educating consumers about the need for the proper disposal of all sorts of wastes, including plastics, is the only way such a ban can be sustainably executed. But this demands patience. The toxic plastics problem will not go away overnight as it can take years to change public behaviour patterns. Maharashtra has taken a good initiative, but it must be backed by a sensible policy prescription.

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