Maharashtra is set to become the 18th state in India to enforce a complete ban on plastic bags, but will the ban really work on the ground? Many environmentalists are not very optimistic, given the poor history of implementing similar plastic bans in 17 other states and Union Territories so far.

On March 15, the Maharashtra cabinet cleared a proposal to ban the manufacture, sale, import, storage and use of all plastic carry bags and a range of other plastic products. While the government had initially planned to enforce the ban from March 18, it is yet to issue a notification about it. However, once the ban is implemented, it will cover polythene carry bags of all sizes and thicknesses, as well as thermocol, disposable plastic plates, bowls, cups, straws, cutlery, and pouches. If the ban is violated, both manufacturers and users could be fined a minimum of Rs 5,000.

The only plastic items exempt from the ban are milk pouches, wrappers for processed food, dustbin liners, packs for medicines, solid waste and agricultural products, and polyethylene terephthalate or PET bottles. The government wants milk pouches and PET bottles to be sold at an added cost of 50 paise and one rupee respectively, to be refunded when consumers return them for recycling.

Maharashtra is India’s biggest generator of plastic waste, producing more than 4.6 lakh tonnes of waste every year. A large proportion of the waste comprises polythene bags below 50 microns in thickness, which the Union government had banned across the country in 2016 because of the threat they pose to the ecology. Despite this nationwide ban, these thin plastic bags that cannot be disposed of or recycled continue to choke drains and waste management systems across India.

In fact, a 2016 report by the Central Pollution Control Board indicated that most Indian states have not yet implemented the Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2011, which mandate proper systems to ensure the segregation and disposal of plastic waste as well as crackdowns on unregistered plastic manufacturing units. According to the report, “plastic bags are stocked, sold and used indiscriminately” even in those 17 states and Union Territories where they are completely banned.

Given this state of affairs, even environmentalists who have welcomed Maharashtra’s proposed plastic ban are sceptical about whether it can actually be implemented.

Rules still not followed

One of the biggest obstacles to the implementation of plastic bans on the ground, say activists, is the lack of political will.

“Every few years, particularly before elections, politicians play to the gallery with such announcements about banning plastic bags,” said Rishi Aggarwal, an environmental activist from the Mumbai-based think tank, Observer Research Foundation. “But they are not interested in implementation. Maharashtra had banned bags below 50 microns long ago, after the Mumbai floods of 2005. But that did not lead to any change, did it?”

According to Aggarwal, bags below 50 microns in thickness are the only ban imposed in the Centre’s amended Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. The rest of the rules simply lay down the basic duties of urban and rural local governing bodies to ensure the safe disposal of plastic waste and to encourage reduced use of plastics.

“The rules talk about waste segregation at source,” said Aggarwal. “Has the Maharashtra government been able to successfully enforce that? Are they providing enough facilities for ragpickers? If they cannot enforce these basic rules without a plastic ban, how will they enforce them with a ban on all plastics?”

Environmental activist Clinton Vaz believes the implementation of plastic bans in other parts of the country has also been difficult because of the structure of imposing fines. “In states where all plastic bags are banned, the structure authorises very few officials to fine violators, which makes enforcement difficult,” said Vaz, founder of the Goa-based waste management non-profit firm V Recycle. “Hardly anyone is actually fined.”

A file photograph of a man scavenging for plastic bags in an open drain in Mumbai. (Photo credit: Reuters/Prashanth Vishwanathan).

‘What about multi-laminated packaging?’

While there is widespread consensus about the need to do away with plastic products, some environmentalists are questioning why the state government must ban all plastics, including thicker bags.

“In many countries, thicker plastic bags are not banned because they are recyclable,” said Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link, an environmental advocacy organisation. “They are not usually the ones that end up in drains. The only reason I can think of is that a blanket ban on bags of all sizes will make it easier to implement.”

Aggarwal believes that polythene bags, while undoubtedly an ecological problem, have been getting the rap quite unfairly in recent years. “Today you get just about everything wrapped in multi-laminated packaging, which is basically plastic lined with foil,” said Aggarwal. These plastics are not covered by Maharashtra’s proposed ban. “But they are a bigger problem in terms of the volume of waste generated, and they cannot even be easily recycled. And they are backed by a huge industry of manufacturers.”

In 2015, said Aggarwal, the Union government had proposed that 5%-10% of such non-recyclable plastic should be collected and used in the process of building roads. “This, too, is something that most state governments have not bothered to implement.”

‘Fining users is good’

Despite all these concerns, environmentalists like Dayanand Stalin from non-profit organisation Vanashakti are optimistic about Maharashtra’s proposed ban on all plastics. “It is high time we have a ban like this,” said Stalin. “We are now drinking plastics in our water, so we cannot be complacent anymore.” He was referring to recently-published research by New York-based scientists, which found tiny plastic particles in 90% of bottled water around the world.

“So far plastic bans have not worked in India because the user was never penalised,” said Stalin. “But the Maharashtra law includes fines for users, which is good. He believes sanitation workers on the ground should be authorised to fine plastic users in order to enforce the ban. “I do think that a Rs 5,000 fine is a bit too much for a poor man who may use plastic out of ignorance. But I do welcome the government’s step.”