Street vendor Shakti Singh hacks out the top of a green coconut, deftly inserts a plastic straw and passes it to a customer, one of many who have gathered around his cart to take a sip after their morning walk in New Delhi’s Jahanpannah Forest Park.
Singh has built a thriving business around his morning routine for more than a decade, but he is worried that not as many people will stop by now, after the Indian government banned single-use plastics such as straws at the start of the month.
“The police have not tried to stop me yet, but soon I will not be able to use them at all,” says Singh, glancing towards a bunch of plastic straws on his cart.
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New Delhi outlawed single-use plastics because they are among the biggest polluters that choke city drains, river fronts and beaches. They are so flimsy and numerous that rag pickers — who are the heart of the country’s informal recycling system — do not bother to collect them.
According to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a conservation group, it takes up to 200 years for plastic straws to decompose. As the plastic degrades, it disintegrates into smaller particles – known as microplastics – that exude harmful chemicals such as bisphenol, which has been linked to environmental pollution and health problems.
We believe that this ban is too limited, but we have to admit that it is a critical step towards controlling the plastic menace.
Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi
India’s single-use plastic ban is targeted at an array of items such as straws, stirrers, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, wrappers, and sticks for balloons, candy and ice-cream – items that aren’t always disposed of by consumers in public bins.
The decision to ban the use of single-use plastics has provoked a storm of protest among manufacturers, traders and vendors who say the ban has been imposed hastily. The Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) has urged the government to defer the ban by a year, indicating that the road to implement the policy will be a bumpy one.
“An immediate ban on the use of single-use plastics may cripple several economic activities related to different sectors,” said CAIT in a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 3 July, adding that either alternate eco-friendly material are not available or are too costly.
Firms from some of the most prominent consumer industries, such as diary giant Amul, have also asked for more time to wean off disposable plastics, claiming that viable alternatives such as paper are not readily available. But they appear to be resigned to the decision, as the federal government has not budged.
“We have ordered papers straws that are 6-7 times more expensive and will come to us by mid-July,” says R.S. Sodhi, managing director of Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd (GCMMF), which makes the Amul brand of milk, ice-creams and a range of dairy products.
Other prominent consumer goods brands such as Dabur and Parle have also said that they have initiated the use of paper straws.
The company is also planning to set up a manufacturing plant for making compostable plastic straws in another six months. The material that costs twice as much as plastic straws, but the cost is projected to just 25-30 per cent more by the time large-scale manufacturing capacity comes online, says Sodhi.
Amul alone requires more than a million straws daily that are packaged on small packs of dairy products and juices. India generates around 3.5 million tons of plastic waste annually, and though he per capita consumption is about half of western nations, India’s waste burden has nearly doubled over the past five years, officials say.
Making the plastic ban work
India is the world’s fourth-largest plastic waste generator and therefore the enforcement of the single-use plastics ban is critical, says Suneel Pandey, director, environment and waste management at TERI, a New Delhi-based research institute that specialises in sustainable development.
“The availability of alternate materials is equally important as otherwise people will be forced to make single-use plastics discreetly,” says Pandey. “It’s better to do away with the need for straws altogether by using new designs where beverages can be consumed directly from packs.”
India will likely take at least a year to effectively implement the ban, predicts Pandey.
Eight million tonnes of plastic flow into oceans every year and around 0.025 per cent of it are straws. The use of items like plastic straws caught on after the second world war when manufacturers were sitting on a tonne of plastic capacity that was suddenly devoid of demand after the war finished.
Throughout the 1960s, the manufacturing infrastructure began to mass-produce plastic straws, which were cheaper to produce and more durable than paper straws for fast food restaurants to go on beverage lids without tearing or narrowing.
But now corporations, municipalities and a growing number of countries, from Pakistan to Papua New Guinea, have been clamping down on single-use plastics, introducing bans or restrictions. But more action will be needed to curtail the environmental impact of plastics in India, say environmentalists.
“We believe that this ban is too limited, but we have to admit that it is a critical step towards controlling the plastic menace…Our cities are littered with non-biodegradable plastic material, and it is greatly adding to environmental stress and degradation,” says Sunita Narain, director general at New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment.
She suggested a three-pronged plan to effectively deal with plastic problem.
“Firstly, all the plastic produced and used should be collected for disposal. Secondly, waste plastic must be recycled or incinerated; it should not reach landfills or choke our waterbodies. Thirdly, reuse or disposal has to be done in a manner that is environmentally-friendly and does not end up creating more pollution or health hazards,” says Narain.
She says the ban on single-use plastics is important because it will help to eliminate plastics that are difficult to collect or recycle.
The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) stressed that the list of banned items is not comprehensive and does not include items as multi-layered packaging used on consumer goods that range from shampoos to chewable tobacco products.
The organisation criticised consumer goods companies that wanted a time extension of six to 12-months for phasing out plastic straws, highlighting that the deadline had already been extended from January 1 to July 1 this year.
The Indian beverage industry estimates that it will take about 18 months to tweak its manufacturing processes to replace plastic straws with paper or compostable plastic varieties.
“I guess it will be a bit more difficult to sip drinks if straws aren’t available. But I don’t mind as I will be making a difference for the environment,” says Divya Kapoor, a college student who lives in New Delhi.