As India bans single-use plastic, Tamil Nadu offers lessons

CHENNAI, India. Amul Vasudevan, a vegetable vendor in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, thought she was going broke.

The state banned retailers from using single-use plastic bags, which were critical to her livelihood, because they were so cheap. She couldn’t afford to sell her merchandise in reusable cloth bags.

Tamil Nadu was not the first state in India to try to limit plastic pollution, but unlike others, it ruthlessly enforced its law. Mrs. Vasudewan has been repeatedly fined for using disposable bags.

Now, three years after the ban went into effect, Ms. Vasudevan’s use of plastic bags has dropped by more than two-thirds; most of her clients bring cloth bags. Many streets in this state of more than 80 million people are virtually free of plastic waste.

Yet the ban on Tamil Nadu is far from an absolute success. Many people still ignore this, considering alternatives to plastic to be either too expensive or too inconvenient. The state’s experience offers lessons for the rest of India, where an ambitious nationwide ban on the production, import, sale and use of single-use plastics went into effect this month.

“Plastic bags can only be abandoned if the buyer decides, not the seller. Vasudevan said from her stall on Muthu Street in Chennai, the state capital. “Getting rid of it is a slow process; it can’t happen overnight.”

In the megacities and villages of India, everyday life is intertwined with single-use plastic, which is considered one of the most dangerous environmental hazards. Purchases of all kinds are brought home in disposable bags, and food is served on disposable utensils and trays. The country is the third largest producer of single-use plastic waste in the world after China and the United States.

But now Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has banned some of those ubiquitous items, including disposable cups, plates, cutlery, straws and earplugs. Disposable bags are prohibited, but thicker, reusable bags are allowed. The ban does not apply to soda bottles and plastic packaging for chips and other snacks.

India is following countries like Bangladesh, the European Union and China in large-scale efforts to reduce plastic waste. But his plan is one of the most ambitious, experts say, as it targets the entire supply chain, from manufacturing to single-use plastics.

What remains to be seen is how committed the authorities will be to enforcing the new law.

“A total ban is very difficult to implement unless local governments take strong action against violators and build partnerships with the people,” said Ravi Agarwal, who leads the waste management advocacy group Toxics Link. “Otherwise we’ll get some sporadic fines here and there and some newspaper reports.”

Last year, the federal government banned the use of very thin plastic bags, but enforcement, left to local authorities, has not been strict. Enforcement of the new law also depends on local authorities, but now the government says it will involve the public, who will be able to report violators and their whereabouts using the application.

Public pressure on politicians, such as to clear sewer blockages caused by plastic, is another key reason for Tamil Nadu’s relative success.

On a recent Friday morning, plainclothes police were crowding Muthu Street looking for the criminals. Next to the peddlers selling vegetables and jasmine flowers, they found a street vendor who packed food for customers in disposable bags. The police found the seller and proceeded to seize tens of pounds of contraband from others, fining them and threatening them with jail time.

The state has collected over $1.3 million in fines since December 2019; the smallest costs about 7 dollars. But the work is endless – after the police dispersed down Muthu Street that day, some vendors resumed using banned bags.

“We need to find cheap solutions to stop using plastic bags,” Ms. Vasudevan, who was not fined that day. “The rich understand what’s at stake, but for the poor, the government needs to make cloth bags cheap.”

Tamil Nadu tried to solve this problem with subsidies and campaigns to promote cloth bags.

At the entrance to the Koombedu wholesale market in Chennai, authorities installed two vending machines holding 800 cloth bags of 12 cents each. The vending machines are filled twice a day. While the ban has undoubtedly hurt the livelihoods of people involved in the production and sale of single-use plastic, for example, it has been a boon for others.

About 25 miles west of Chennai, in the village of Nemam, about two dozen seamstresses stamp cloth bags to the sound of Bollywood music. Being part of a cooperative, they were able to increase their income by producing more bags.

“We are producing more cloth bags than ever,” said Deepika Sarwanan, head of a local women’s self-help group that was originally funded by the government but is now self-supporting. “We don’t produce even 0.1 percent of the demand.”

But for some businesses, such as those selling live fish, plastic is hard to replace. “No one wants to destroy the environment,” said Magish Kumar, who sells domestic fish at the Kolater market in Chennai. “But if we don’t sell them in plastic, there is no other way; how will we feed our families?”

For now, Mr. Kumar and his colleagues are using thicker bags, which they ask customers to return.

However, Tamil Nadu has made more progress than other states that have tried to cut down on plastic. Its beaches, residential enclaves and industrial estates are largely devoid of plastic waste. Many residents conscientiously collect plastic for recycling and separate the waste.

A trailblazer in the state was the Nilgiri area, an area popular with tourists for its hill towns and tea plantations, where single-use plastic was banned in 2000. There, the prosecution was led by Supriya Sahu, a civil servant who recognized the dangers of plastic. pollution after she saw pictures of dead bison with plastic bags in their stomachs. She launched a public awareness campaign.

“We made people understand that if you want tourism to survive, we have to stop using plastic,” Ms said. Sahu, who is now a government environmental officer. “Any government-led program can only be successful if it becomes a popular movement.”

On a recent wet day, the Koembedu market has shown success. Out of more than two dozen stores, only two sold flowers packed in polyethylene.

“We have been selling flowers wrapped in newspapers for many years,” said florist Richard Edison. “People are demanding it.”