Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now trained his guns on single-use plastics, and his war against plastics is set to start with the announcement of a ban on “plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets” on 2 October.
It is unclear if anyone in the government has done economic and environmental cost-benefit analyses of a nationwide ban on single-use plastics.
Reuters quotes an unnamed official as saying that the “ban will be comprehensive and will cover manufacturing, usage and import of such items”. Modi’s de-plasticisation campaign seeks to end the use of single-use plastics by 2022.
This campaign will be popular, not only among Modi’s die-hard supporters, but also among his opponents on the Left and among most ordinary people regardless of their political or ideological orientation. After all, everyone knows that plastic bags are ‘bad for the environment’ so who can be against banning them?
Plastic bags and their alternatives
Well, plastic bags — like other single-use plastics — create two different types of environmental problems. The first visible problem is that because they are practically non-biodegradable, they end up on the roadsides, in landfills, lakes and oceans, and thus make their way into the food chain. It is a worldwide problem but felt acutely in India because our towns and villages do not have adequate waste disposal systems. The second invisible problem is their ecological footprint — in terms of the environmental cost vis-a-vis their production, transport and use.
The paradox of the plastic bag is that its total environmental footprint is actually much lower than that of alternatives. According to a study conducted by the Danish government in 2018, you need to use a paper bag 43 times to achieve the same cumulative environmental impact as a plastic bag.
After Bengaluru banned plastic bags a couple of years ago, grocery stores have started offering light cotton bags that are priced at Rs 10 or more. To achieve the same environmental impact as the plastic bag, though, a cotton bag would have to be used 7,100 times. If you are hyper woke and prefer organic cotton bags, you would have to use it 20,000 times to match the ecological footprint of the ‘evil’ plastic bag.
While the traditional Indian sensibility leads us to reuse bags, I cannot think how anyone can reuse a paper bag 45 times, or a cotton bag 7,000 times. What this means is that by banning plastic bags and swapping them for paper or cotton bags, we will be doing more damage to the environment and exacerbating climate change. Think of the trees that must be cut, the water and energy that must be used to make these alternatives.
Understanding the cost of ban
If India’s proposed ban on single-use plastics is successful, the benefit is that we will reduce plastic pollution, but at the cost of worsening the cumulative environmental impact. Note that the Modi government’s plan goes beyond plastic bags and includes banning plastic cups, plates and use of plastic in packaging. It is inconceivable that the alternatives to plastic will be any less environmentally damaging. I do not think anyone has worked out the sheer numbers involved. Given the environmental stakes, the responsible thing to do — before announcing a nationwide ban on plastics — would be to conduct a robust scientific study of the impact of replacing the billions of items of plastic that Indians use every day.
The economic benefits will mainly arise from new investments and innovations in the packaging industry and are likely to kick in over the medium term.
Depending on the terms of the ban, a large part of existing investments, machinery, business processes and jobs in the plastics industry will be destroyed. Businesses will find themselves stuck with proscribed equipment and will have to incur additional costs to replace old machinery. Big companies might be able to afford the additional capital required, but small and medium enterprises will find it a lot more difficult. This, at a time when there is an overall credit crunch in the economy.
The burden of a plastic ban will disproportionately affect the poor. From milk and biscuit packets to toiletry sachets and plastic bags, the low cost of plastic packaging makes a number of essential goods accessible and affordable to the poor. Any increase in packaging costs will directly affect the disposable incomes of the poor.
While your supermarket can well afford to charge you Rs 10 for the plastic bag, the fruit and vegetable vendor on the street cannot. At the margin, the additional friction and inconvenience of having to bring your own bag is likely to work against the small vendor. When we seek Western fads at Indian levels of income, the economic cost of our perceived moral rectitude will be borne by the poor.
During economic slowdown, really?
The fact that we are in the middle of an economic slowdown ought to weigh on the minds of the Modi government’s policymakers. Even if getting rid of single-use plastics proves to be a good thing, is this the right time to do it?
If not a ban on single-use plastics, what is the answer? Studies show that reuse and disposal hold the key. The ideal shopping bag is one that you make yourself with the cloth and tools that you already have, and then use it until the end of the bag’s life. Public policy should therefore focus on incentivising the industry to produce reusable designs and educating the people on the importance of reuse. It has to be done gradually, with nudges and incentives, not with a hard ban.
In a way, the ban on plastics is a disguised admission by the government that it has failed to put in place adequate garbage disposal mechanisms. So, that’s the place to start — get municipal governments to invest in waste management. The war on plastics should be, er, replaced with a war on plastic waste.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.