Unwitting casualties in India's battle against the plastic menace
India generates more than 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day, according to government statistics
Anand Chikne was forced to shut down his four-decade-old factory that manufactured plastic bag in the northern suburbs of Mumbai, following a ban on many disposable plastic items in the Indian state of Maharashtra.
His small enterprise, which employed about 20 people, is one of hundreds of manufacturing units that have suffered a similar fate in the wake of the ban.
“I'm totally shocked,” says Mr Chikne. “How can I earn money for my family? How can I pay off my loans?"
The state government of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, in March introduced a ban in an effort to control the scourge of plastic, on disposable items such as plastic bags, straws and cutlery. From June 23, fines and potential jail sentences of up to three months will be imposed on those who do not comply with the law.
This outright ban is not only impacting the manufacturers, it's a big problem for the businesses that use plastic. The steps taken by Maharashtra are part of a wider trend in India that is likely to cause further upheaval in the plastic manufacturing industry and for companies across different sectors that use plastic.
India's prime minister Narendra Modi on the World Environment Day on Tuesday -- with India being the global host – announced an ambitious plan to abolish all single-use plastic in the country by 2022. The theme of the event was “beat plastic pollution” this year.
The state of Tamil Nadu, to coincide with the global event, unveiled plans for its own ban of most disposable plastic products from the beginning of next year.
The direct impact of such moves by regional governments on the livelihoods and incomes of Indians is enormous.
“Plastic is one of the key drivers of economic growth,” says MJ Khan, the chairman of the Indian Council of Food and Agriculture, a think-tank based in New Delhi. “So many industries are dependent on it.”
In Maharashtra, the banned plastics manufacturing industry is worth 50 billion rupees (Dh2.7bn) a year, according to lobby group the All India Plastic Manufacturers' Association.
Some 200,000 workers and 2,500 plastic factories are directly impacted in the state, according to the Plastic Bag Manufacturers Association of India.
“It's going to be very, very bad,” says Neemit Punamiya, the general secretary of the Plastic Bag Manufacturers Association of India, based in Mumbai. “Bank dues are getting affected. People who are working here for years and years in this industry are going to have difficulties finding other jobs. It's going to be very harsh.”
Plastic manufacturers in Maharashtra export their products to other parts of India and abroad, including some markets in Europe.
However, the authorities do have good reason for being harsh on the industry and taking such drastic steps. India generates more than 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day, according to government statistics. That waste, clogs up drains in cities like Mumbai, pollutes water supplies, and the country's waterways and oceans.
Companies are having to look at ways of adapting as the pressure mounts in Asia's third-biggest economy to reduce the use of plastic.
Amuleek Singh Bijral, the co-founder and chief executive of Chai Point, India’s largest chain of tea cafes with 100 stores in eight cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad, says that customers of the chain, already demanded sustainable packaging. This has prompted the company to serve the beverages in glass bottles rather than plastic.
“Our experience is that our customers are willing to absorb some of the cost once you move towards more sustainable options - although only to a certain extent,” Mr Bijral says. “The greater momentum is from the consumer, although there is some momentum from the government too.”
The cost of a glass bottle is 400 per cent higher for his company than a plastic bottle, he says. The increase in expenses can make it difficult for small businesses to manage the costs of using alternatives to plastic.
PepsiCo India, meanwhile, has announced plans to look at scaling up recovery and recycling, to achieve the equivalent of 100 per cent of its plastic waste over the next few years.
The company has also unveiled plans for 100 per cent compostable, plant-based packaging for some of its snack products in India.
“We are delighted that India will be among the first countries to pilot this new, sustainable packaging solution,” says Ahmed ElSheikh, the president and chief executive of PepsiCo India.
Computer manufacturer Dell says it is using plastic waste retrieved from the ocean and natural resources like bamboo to create sustainable packaging.
“We all have a responsibility to protect the planet, and it is up to us to look after it for future generations still to come,” says Rajeev Kapoor, the India vice president and CSR champion at Dell.
Indian IT giant Infosys says it is aiming to make all its education campuses free of non-recyclable plastic products by 2020, with plans to replace water bottles and carrier bags with materials that are more environmentally friendly.
Some experts say that companies should be doing much more, however.
“It's time that corporate India starts to take the three Rs of plastic usage more seriously: reduce, reuse and recycle,” says Ajeenkya DY Patil, the president of Ajeenkya DY Patil University. “More investments have to be made in research and development to find alternatives for this material. This is the only way we can combat this global menace.”
Most within the manufacturing industry for disposable plastic products naturally argue that a complete eradication is too drastic a measure.
Mr Punamiya says that encouraging recycling of disposable plastic would be a better solution than an outright ban.
“What we have continuously been talking with the state government, requesting them that there should be an alternative to this,” he says. “Ban is not the final thing for any product. They have to find ways to curtail things. I mean, the major issue is littering.”
The best option would be if authorities could insist on recycling of plastic, he adds.
There have been efforts to introduce controls on plastic in other parts of India, but these schemes have been unsuccessful in locations including Delhi. In fact, prior to Maharashtra 17 of India's 29 states have announced bans on plastic.
Given India's dependence on plastic, there are questions about successful the country will be in reducing and eventually abolishing single-use plastic.
“Enforceability of plastic ban is a big challenge, when you have such a large population not sensitised about the effects of plastic,” says Mr Khan.
While some people like Mr Chikne are being put out of business, the move away from plastics could create an opportunity for other manufacturing industries to emerge.
Mr Bijral explains that he currently sources some of his packaging from China including biodegradable cutlery because it is far cheaper to buy from there. But he hopes that soon there will more production of alternative options within India.
“When people realise this is a local level need in India, the capacity will build up,” he says. “This will be beneficial to everyone.”
Updated: June 9, 2018 04:16 PM