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There's no gagging the plastic bag

Updated on: Apr 12, 2011
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This morning when I stopped to buy vegetables from a local vendor while returning home from my walk, I was not at all surprised to see him fishing out a plastic bag.  Delhi had banned plastic bags early this month, but this time too, it looks like the ban is going to go the way of the 2008 order – be totally ignored!

 Forgive me if I sound cynical. But it's my theory that plastic bags – like cockroaches – will be there till the end of civilisation. It may be a relatively new invention – just about 35 years old – but just look at the consumption figures of plastic bags.  In one minute, over a million are consumed globally. The Capital's green activists claim that any household in Delhi on an average disposes of three plastic bags every day.

 Mounting opposition

World over, there is mounting revolt against plastic bags but you can count on your fingers the number of places where bans have worked.  A quick Internet search throws up just a handful of countries – and here there are some surprises, 

Rwanda apparently has very low density of plastic bags; it has managed to curb the menace. Clearly bans or even taxes– and everyone from the Irish to the Belgians to the Italians - have tried out one or the other option; it is not working. To be fair, the Irish and even the Danes have managed to curb usage with their Plas taxes, but bans have not been as effective.

Take Delhi itself. In 2008, the Delhi government had banned the use of plastic bags in the city's main markets and local shopping centres, adding to the existing ban in hotels, hospitals and malls. For a month or so, the shopkeepers complied, citizens consciously carried cloth bags, but it didn't take long for everyone to go back to their old ways.

In fact, I had forgotten about the 2008 order until the ban this month. This time, the order under Section 5 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 is more draconian. The ban encompasses manufacture, sale, storage and usage of plastic bags. Punishment – for all violators – the manufacturer, shopkeeper or consumer — could be five years in jail or fine up to a lakh. In India, many cities have a ban in place – some enforce it better than Delhi, but plastic bags have not completely disappeared. Also, users find ways to circumvent legal orders. Take Mumbai, where bags with thickness under 20 microns were banned in 1998. It didn't take long for shopkeepers to switch to bags with thickness of 21 microns!

An emphatic No

On the other hand, a small town like Modbury in England has managed to eliminate the offending bag altogether without any official ban – around four years ago, the town voluntarily outlawed the bag, and today is held up as an example of how to do it. Each household was issued a cloth bag — incidentally, order for this was bagged by a Mumbai factory - and they simply stopped using plastic bags!

 What does it show: That ultimately it all boils down to how conscious and responsible citizens themselves are.  And, instead of at the city level, if attempts are made at the local neighbourhood level, it has a better chance of being successful.

Published on April 15, 2011

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