A customer holds a plastic bag containing chai | Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
A customer holds a plastic bag containing chai | Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
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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?


Also read: No more nudges, RSS will now partner govt to ensure plastic-free India, water conservation


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.


Also read: Half-litre milk pouches could cost more as Modi govt is set to phase out plastic packets


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.


Also read: Banning single-use plastic bags won’t save our oceans


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. 

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20 Comments Share Your Views

20 COMMENTS

  1. I have often wondered if policy(ies) could effectively render ‘goods’ as ‘inferior’ (economically speaking) – think tobacco, opioids, coal, diesel, plastics.

    Health / Environmental concerns (sometimes degrading to hyper-activism) have motivated search for alternatives – but the biggest contributor to adopt an alternative is the campaign to demonize the ‘good’ – thus rendering it as a social pariah. That approach is hardly any different from the approach by corporations to often belittle (obliquely) the competing products – Although, in several cases a smear campaign against products in the market can be contestable.

    Several years ago, scientists developed the technology for plastics that offered a low cost solution to several problems and satisfying several needs – the material could be strong, light-weight, moulded into desired shape….. – the basic raw material again, largely derived from petroleum.

    Incidentally the non-fuel use for petroleum is growing (think fertilisers where it provides the feedstock). The new and varied uses helped investments to discover more petroleum – reducing costs further, for all its uses (fuel, feedstock, raw-material…) – this is an outcome of a complex set of interactions of technology life cycle, product life-cycle…

    Polyester cloth (again basic raw material is petroleum) when first introduced, rapidly substituted use of cotton clothing – there were several positive social benefits – more clothing was available to clothe the population – Then cotton came back as a premium raw material for clothing – and also the two (cotton and polyester) could be blended – they compete, substitute, blend…

    Banning reduces competition – and very likely to reduce the availability of substitutes – and posits ‘goods’ as adversaries that may not be aemnable to blend – All of that can do very little good to a society

  2. The government should help the companies come with better alternatives especially in the food packaging industry. Then only they should go for any ban.
    This is 2019 – we are not in the old “yuga” – the consumption style has changed over the decades. The idea of mobility, ease and affordability is the key.
    PET bottles are used in almost all the developed and developing nations in the world. They can’t be banned overnight. Even sachets are very important to the food industry – one can except every liquid food product to be sold in glass bottles – they are quite heavy and often not portable like PET bottles – and what about glass disposals ?

    As the author right;y said first the government should work on the waste management and then go for any such bans

  3. I really don’t understand why Modi government is always in so much of hurry. They never analyse the impact step or decision. Whether it Demonetization, implementing 12.5 % of tax on Gold or vehicle violations rules act anything. Just do not consider the inconvenience he is causing to common man, he keeps creating unnecessary pressure situation. Does not realise how much difficult it gets for us to adjust. He is Just trying to copy foreign countries. Really fed up of his experimental policies. Has he given any good alternative which is cost effective before banning plastic ? Are we going to buy cotton bags to use everyday? Does he understands the values of this plastic to poor people? They literally survive by this, their utensils, work items everything is made up of plastic. How dares he to extract money from us like this.? I am so upset to give him vote this time.

  4. Finally a good idea from the Government. Going by past records, I’m not sure how well this will be implemented though.
    Our single use culture of just manufacturing crappy products so we buy-use-throw at an alarming pace, in the name of convenience, is destroying Earth, our health and well-being. Which are more important to protect than some notion of what’s bad for the economy.
    True, India does not have good waste management practices and true that Indians are just too indisciplined and short-sighted to voluntarily do the right thing.
    But banning plastics will force everyone to be more thoughtful and careful, plan better, reuse more and pollute less.
    Many facts in this article are wrong. Like the
    selective maths that says cloth bags have to be reused 7,000 times. The author may not realize that we do not simply cut more trees for paper to make bags, but reuse newspaper etc to make paper bags. Same happens for cloth and fibre bags. Cheap plastics cause problems when produced, when recycled and when discarded and when all these costs are included, plastic is also a very expensive material!
    But we also need to put in place better waste management systems and get disciplined in our behavior.
    One thing to watch out for that this may disadvantage small shops compared with online shopping, thus helping big players. If I forget to carry a bag, I may be tempted to not buy from a shop but just order online. Again, this is not necessarily a good reason for continuing to use a polluting, poisonous material.

  5. Do you know the salt that you’re consuming and the water that you are drinking contain microplastics. It’s next to unavoidable. Every time you eat food, you are ingesting some amount of plastic content. Recycling don’t work in the US itself. Does this writer really expect it to work in India? The developed world usually ships its waste to third world countries for ‘recycling’. Out of sight, out of mind seems to be their policy. Plastics that contain food waste goes directly to the land fill because its practically next to impossible to extract any usable plastic out of it in an economical way. The concept of recycling may be introduced to the young kids in Indian schools, but first government baboos need to learn what can be recycled and what cannot. Necessary infrastructure and recycling technology needs to be provided to the private industries and NGOs. Then, you may start to see some changes.

    Why are most Indian writers act like half-baked intellectuals? Wait, don’t answer…Macaulayism.

  6. Well done you have clearly said***: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.👋👌👍

  7. Not sure what the author’s argument is. There never is a right time to do anything. 40 years ago India was poorer and nobody used plastic bags. We used cloth, jute bags etc. So not sure how poor are affected. If plastic bags stopped being made other bags will get manufactured.

  8. If you are literate you would have known you really cannot destroy plastics. But instead of ban we need to put taxes on the manufacture so that users move to different source for packaging.

  9. Why no one shown the guts of asking BJP to first stop using plastic publicity materials like flag, banners, bunting etc. They first set an example and let other parties follow. There were reports that BJP would stop using plastic publicity materials let see.

  10. Banning disposable plastics is definitely a good idea. If it is stopped in the manufacturing stage then the public will have no alternative other than carry their own bags or purchase them. Businesses will have to odopt alternative methods for packaging and delivery etc. Paper, cotton, items can be used like pre-plastic days.

  11. Ban is the only way to clean up INDIA cod unlike westerners our people never think of the environment. They are not doing simple things like segregating waste and not littering their cities and towns. No amount of talking or education really helps. In fact the abuse the people who try to educate them…

    • Even paper , wood , metal, rubber , condoms , sanitary pads , etc are non biodegradable will you ban that also.. Do ban of something will give you solution without a substitute in hand. It’s a vague idea. Of course plastic waste is major headache around the world. But why is it. Because we are running away from civic sense against society littering here and there. Plastic is a miracle material as it is extracted from mother earth( crude oil). How a material made from a parent can be a evil. It is better to reduce, reuse and recycle or else our whole ecosystem will be destroyed. Plastic waste irrespective of category directly used in road construction, brick making etc. And we extract diesel from it as done by some companies

  12. A blanket ban on plastics bags is never a good idea …but finding a sustainable alternative for replacing single plastics use is. At the same time, banning plastics straws, single use cups & tumblers, & low micron/GSM plastics bags, shampoo & gutka sachets, thermocol plates and boxes etc is a must to save the planet.

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