DELHI -- After years of battling plastic pollution, the Delhi government instituted a ban, which took effect in November, on the manufacture, sale and use of plastic bags in the capital. But last week a young salesman in a bustling Delhi market openly sold a packet of 100 plastic bags to this journalist for 70 rupees (about $1).
“Bans come and go. We know we can be arrested but there is a huge demand and this is business,” said the salesman, who requested his name not be published. “Take the white ones instead of the black. It is less conspicuous. Just don’t take it out when you’re traveling in the metro just in case some cop sees you and asks where you got it.”
The punishment for violation is five years in prison or a fine of 100,000 rupees or both for the manufacturers and sellers of plastic bags. The ban also prohibits shopkeepers from providing customers plastic bags to carry their goods and from covering or wrapping their goods in plastic, which many shops do to protect goods.
But for now, shops in many markets and shoppers in the capital are ignoring the ban, which is also undergoing a legal challenge. Businessmen and shoppers say it is difficult to stop using these non-biodegradable bags, which has become intrinsic to the buying and selling process over the past few decades. And so, despite the ban, shopkeepers continue to order such bags, and manufacturers keep supplying them.
Some shopkeepers have begun to follow the rules, and so have switched to cloth bags and started charging their customers 5 extra rupees or 9 cents to cover their costs. So shoppers have a choice of carrying their own bags or paying for one. But many are not following the rules. In December, the Delhi government carried out a compliance check in 468 shops in the malls and 46 shops in hotels. The inspectors found violation of this ban in 152 outlets.
For several years now, the Delhi Municipal Corporation has been fighting a losing battle to manage the non-biodegradable waste that is quite literally choking the drains, sewage system and dumping grounds of the city. Delhi produces approximately 574 tons of plastic waste everyday, according to government figures.
Environmentalists have also been raising the alarm about Delhi’s Yamuna River being polluted by plastic. Health experts have said that toxins being released from plastics, which have seeped into the ground water, are making their way back to the city’s 17 million inhabitants.
"Every bit of plastic that has been produced is still on Earth. You can be dead sure about that and it is occupying somebody's habitat. It could be in the stomach of a whale or a cow," said Shyamala Mani, a public health expert at the National Institute of Urban Affairs. "So if you don't know what do it with it, do you have the right to put out more and more of it?"
Meanwhile, the All India Plastic Industries Association has also challenged the ban in the Delhi High Court on the grounds that it interferes with the rights of plastic manufacturers to conduct business, and contending that the ban will destroy the livelihood of hundreds of people employed in their factories.
The Press Trust of India news agency has reported that around 400 plastic bag manufacturing units are operating in the city and the annual turnover of these units is up to 1,000 Crore rupees or approximately $2 billion.
While the verdict is pending, the court has kept the ban in place but also stayed the arrest or fining of manufactures until a decision is reached in April.
Shopkeepers also noted that many of their products like clothes and leather goods, which come from different parts of the country, are already wrapped in plastic before entering Delhi.
The present ban also prohibits the use of plastic as covers for books, magazines, invitation cards or greeting cards. But many shopkeepers say that they need transparent plastic covers to both protect their wares from spoilage as well as to show the goods to customers.
Baboo, who runs a brass and silver store in Delhi, said that the plastic covering protects all his ornaments from corroding especially during summer and the rainy season when humidity is high.
He also pointed out that buying alternative packing material would be more expensive. “And we buy in bulk,” he said.
The pro-ban groups, however, argue that the shopkeepers in Delhi will simply have to ask their manufacturers to use other packaging material like cardboard boxes even if it costs more.
Vendors also complained about the lack of options. Sanjay, who runs a jewelry and precious gems store, said that transparent plastic bag allows customers too see the sparkly stones. “Transparency is the first matter. If the customers can’t see the gems how can they be attracted to buy them?” he said. “We have not been exposed to any alternative.”
Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxic Links, a non-profit organization dedicated to removing toxins from the environment, agreed that the lack of alternative bags was a problem for shopkeepers. Over the years, he said, small-scale industries making jute bags and paper bags had declined.
Agarwal recommended that for the ban to work, the government would have to incentivize the manufacturing of different kinds of bags. “And not just jute or cloth,” he said. “There needs to be some innovative thinking here. The government could have a design competition.”
For the shopkeepers, visibility and protecting their goods from corrosion is essential. Anil, a bookstore owner, runs his hands over the plastic covering most of the books in his shops. “If this isn’t there then the moisture will make the paper swell and the books fat,” he said. “Then who will buy them?”
Eventually experts pointed out that raising customer awareness was the key to making the ban on plastics successful. Shubham, a student in the 12th grade, swung a black plastic bag as he maneuvered his away through another crowded marketplace on Wednesday.
“I know about the ban. But I forgot to carry one from home today. Don’t get the shopkeeper into trouble,” he said, smiling sheepishly. “I do care about the environment though.”
While many shoppers say they forget because it’s only been a few months since the ban was imposed, some are taking the order more seriously.
“I don’t use plastic because its bad for the environment, said Manish, a 12th grade student, who was equipped with a cloth bag in a marketplace last week, which he said the shopkeeper had provided.
Manish added that he has also started keeping a spare cloth bag in his car since the ban was imposed. “I think it will take some time before carrying one's own bag becomes a habit."
Grocery storekeepers said that the majority of their customers still expect a plastic bag. They pointed out that available paper bags are not strong enough to hold a large amount of groceries.
Susmita, a homemaker, said that it's difficult to bring home meat products in paper envelopes. But the biggest problem Susmita faces is taking out the garbage because her neighborhood store is no longer selling big trash bags.
“In India, there is no segregation of waste. So the kitchen garbage gets quite messy especially with the liquids,” she said.
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