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India imposes ban on single-use plastics. But will it be enforced?

A boy walks on a water pipeline over a sewer canal filled with plastics and other waste in New Delhi. (Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — India on Friday became the latest country to impose a ban on most single-use plastics, part of a growing but patchy global effort to tackle a leading source of pollution. The challenges of enforcement are enormous, experts say, but so are the potential gains.

Only a small fraction of the plastic produced globally is recycled. Most is single-use, or disposable. It often winds up in landfills, rivers and oceans, or is burned, a significant contributor to air pollution in developing nations. Though these plastics are used only briefly, they can take hundreds of years to decompose. By 2050, there will be about 12 billion tons of plastic waste in the world, the United Nations estimates.

Plastic debris is ubiquitous in India: stacked along roadsides, floating in waterways and choking drainage systems. The country is the world’s third-largest producer of plastic waste, trailing only the United States and China, according to a recent report from Australia’s Minderoo Foundation.

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India announced its ambitious initiative last year. Now, the manufacture, sale or import of widely used items such as plastic cutlery, ice cream sticks, and film on cigarette packs and candy boxes are banned. Plastic bags, another major pollutant, are not on the list for now, but the government has mandated an increase in thickness to make them easier to reuse. Some plastic packaging used for consumer food products will be excluded from the ban, but manufacturers are tasked with ensuring that it is recycled.

Experts say bans are only a first step and must be followed by stringent, long-term enforcement.

“Plastic is cheap and a poor man’s commodity,” said Anoop Kumar Srivastava, founder of the Foundation for Campaign Against Plastic Pollution. “Such campaigns take years of sustained efforts. The gains are going to be enormous over a period of time.”

Legal manufacturers of single-use plastic are likely to shut down as the ban takes effect, he said, but unlicensed ones may spring up to meet demand, making vigilant monitoring imperative. Pollution- control bodies at the state and local levels are primarily tasked with enforcing the ban. Violators will be fined and can face jail time, the Economic Times reported.

“The large users of plastic packaging need to work with the supply chain on how they can shift to alternatives without affecting their financial bottom line,” said Suneel Pandey, director of environment and waste management at the Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi.

But consumers have a role to play as well. “Awareness is a big issue,” Pandey said. “If [consumers] get alternatives, they would switch. Otherwise, they will use what is convenient.”

Plastic manufacturers are already up in arms. They say that the government did not give them enough time to make the transition and that thousands of jobs are at stake.

“For so many units to change their product, their machinery, their manpower and adapt to newer technologies is a very big task that cannot happen in a year,” said Kishore Sampat, president of the All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association. The ban will impact more than 80,000 companies making single-use plastic items and lead to billions of dollars in losses, he estimated.

India takes its place in a slow but building global movement away from plastics. China announced in 2020 that it would phase out plastic bags nationwide by the end of this year. A ban on single-use plastics in Canada will go into effect in December. There is no national ban in the United States, but California, New York and Oregon have limited the use of plastic items.

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More than half a dozen state governments in India have passed similar regulations in the past, with mixed results. But there are small success stories that could serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

Twenty years ago, Supriya Sahu, a young government official charged with oversight of Nilgiris district, a popular destination in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, saw a seemingly impossible problem. Tourists left behind mounds of plastic that would find its way into streams and forests and be eaten by animals. She joined forces with civil society groups, municipal bodies and village representatives to work toward a solution.

Before seeking a broad ban, she persuaded local councils to pass resolutions against plastic use. Her team distributed cloth bags to tourists at the district borders. To raise awareness, images of animals with plastic stuck to their intestines were displayed widely. Finally, authorities began to fine consumers and close shops using plastic bags.

“It worked like magic,” Sahu said. “There was absolutely no way that we could handle all the plastic” that was being generated.

Tamil Nadu later adopted many of these practices and banned most single-use plastic items in 2019. The state has seized 1,768 tons of plastic in the years since and collected $1.28 million in fines.

“It is not an easy decision for any government to take,” Sahu said. “But somewhere we have to start.”

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