Since June 23, the Indian state of Maharashtra has been verbalizing distributors and users of non-reusable plastic. In Mumbai, more than two hundred inspectors are on the hunt.
MUMBAI — Santosh is still shaken by what happened. It was June 29, a Friday, when the officers from the Mumbai Municipality walked right up in front of his tiny jewelry stall to check that he was no longer using plastic bags to hold the merchandise he sells to customers. This street vendor, who lives with his family in this Indian city's historic district of Colaba, had already changed the bags he uses after authorities announced the ban on non-recyclable plastic bags. But to his surprise, the inspectors said his new cloth bags do not comply.
"They fined me 5,000 rupees ($72.80)," says Santosh. "I spent 300 rupees ($4.37) to get a hundred cloth bags that they wound up seizing. This fine is a huge loss for me, and I am now reduced to wrap my goods in newspapers."
The ban, officially in effect since June 23, is on plastic shopping bags, food wrappers, straws, dishes and small plastic bottles. While 25 of the 29 states of the Indian Union partially or totally ban non-reusable plastic, Maharashtra (with its 115 million inhabitants) and the capital, Mumbai, are the first to apply sanctions — with 225 inspectors tracking down remaining plastic users. Manufacturers, traders and even end-users now risk fines of up to 5,000 rupees ($72,80), up to 25,000 rupees ($364) and three months in jail for repeat offenders. Dozens of major brands, including McDonald's and Starbucks, had to pay fines after recent inspections.
A worker works in a plastic recycle factory in Agartala, Tripura, India — Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called plastic a "threat to humanity" and instructed his government to eradicate the material by 2022.
On the long artery of Colaba, almost all retailers have made switch without resistance. "Since the media has shown how polluted the sea is, we are all happy to be part of the overall effort," says Deepak, a pharmacist who has switched to paper bags over the last year, to wrap his medicines. For Mahmood, who sells his last mangoes in this early monsoon season, the situation is more complicated. "I used to buy 50 plastic bags for 30 rupees (44 cents). Now I have to pay 80 rupees ($1.16) for 35 paper bags," he explains. "But it's all right, it's for the good cause."
A nearby grocer, Vikram, has found a supplier of bagasse-based bags, made from a material that comes from the cellulose of sugar cane. "For now, we can still give customers plastic bags over 50 microns thick that have handles, because they can be reused. Same goes for bottles of water over 500 milliliters. They are still allowed," he says.
It's a good reason to lead by example
Some still continue to resist, arguing that the suddenness with which the ban was applied did not give them enough time to adjust. The association of plastic bag manufacturers estimates that "the sector will lose $2.2 billion" and that "300 000 jobs are threatened." In the span of one week, thousands of shops were inspected, 1.5 million rupees ($21,832) in fines collected and more than one and a half tons of plastic seized.
Raj Purohit, a Colaba member of parliament — who is part of the Indian People's Party (BJP, Hindu nationalist), thinks that everything is going too fast. He calls for a transition period to run until December 2019: that's "the time needed to prepare sustainable alternatives, such as metal, wood and jute, but most importantly the time needed to build a plastic recycling network worthy of the name."
On July 1, the government of Maharashtra sent a message of appeasement, giving a new three-month moratorium to let small retailers use plastic bags that are less than 50 microns thick. One reason behind this decision is because the monsoon season and its torrential rains are here, and it makes the use of paper bags impossible until September. This angers ecologists, who fear that the plastic will end up reappearing sooner or later. Ecological blogger Vandana Vasudevan says that in Maharashtra alone, 8,000 tons of polythene bags are used every year. "It's a good reason to lead by example," he says.
Vasudevan concludes by reminding us of one fact: a simple plastic straw used to drink water from a coconut takes 200 years to break down.