Why banning plastic in India is not a good idea

I originally wrote this as a speech but unfortunately, I wasn't able to deliver it due to other commitments 😦      Hope it still makes sense as an article.

On June 5th, World Environment Day, Indian Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan stunned the world by declaring that India will eliminate all single-use plastics by 2022. Environmentalists wowed and the plastic industry growled. Question is, is it a viable solution?

It may come as a surprise that single-use plastic had already been banned in 25 of the 28 states in India, long before the environment minister’s remarks.

Yet in states such as Punjab and Karnataka, the enforcement of the ban is so hilariously non-existent, that many of their long-term residents don’t know about the ban’s existence.

It’s not just the poor regulation and enforcement infrastructure in India that spells worries for the ban’s scope. 

Our waste management system is woefully ill-equipped to tackle the burgeoning garbage that finds its way into massive landfills near low-income residential communities and rivers such as the Yamuna.

This brings us to the second reason why a plastic ban will prove to be ineffective. In an effort to incentivize the plastic ban for consumers and retailers alike, the Maharashtra state government offered a buyback option. This way consumers could return plastic bottles to retailers for a discount. Retailers would then give these over to the waste disposal authorities.

But as these authorities have themselves pointed out, they lack sufficient resources, both material and human, to tackle this additional channel of plastic waste.

Finally, in a country where a large majority of the population still buys its fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat from street vendors, the lack of cheaper alternatives to plastic is bound to cause severe financial distress.

And let’s not even get started on the plastic industry and the adverse effect this ban would have on the economy.

In order for the plastic ban to actually succeed, India should allocate resources to replenishing ramshackle institutions such as the Central Pollution Control Board and other task forces dedicated to enforcing the ban. 

At the same time, alternatives such as jute, fibre or reinforced paper must be subsidized in order to be commercially viable for small-scale vendors. As was seen in the demonetization debacle, as well as the Maharashtra example earlier this year: sudden moves don’t work that well in India.

Furthermore, in a country such as India, the government’s actions are still considered alien and distant and such a decision to ban plastic altogether may seem suppressive to the common man and thus cause even more trouble to enforcement for the same.

What India needs is a phased approach, focusing on a single state as an experiment and using its success as an exemplar for other states to follow suit.

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