Troubled times for plastic bags!

Consumers and retailers bite their nails as plastic bags do the disappearing act...

Once jokingly called national flower, polythene bags are being banned or taxed all over the world. Many are not happy with the decision as it forms an integral part of their lives while some think this is correct in wake of the move to save the environment. If one man’s food is another man’s poison, let’s get the gist straight out of the controversy of its once boom and now ban story….

Alarming facts about Plastic!
    * Plastic bags kill at least 100,000 birds, whales, seals and turtles every year
    * Plastics with a thickness less than 35 microns are the most harmful ones which are mostly given out by the retailers and take away food outlets
    * Food is not safe in these and has chances of cross contamination
    * It takes almost 1000 years for plastics to decay and mix with soil

Types of Poly bags
There are four types of poly bags, High Density Poly Ethylene or HDPE, Low Density Poly Ethethylene or LDPE, degradable and compostable. Their purpose can be found as below:
    * Economical disposable plastic bags for bagging purchases at grocery stores or supermarkets are usually made of HDPE
    * Smaller plastic bags are commercially available for containing and storing food items and can be used for holding other items as well. These kinds of bags are commonly made of LDPE
    * Zip pouch is a zipper-like bag
    * A bin bag ( or garbage bag) is a bag used to line the insides of waste receptacles such as trash cans to prevent the insides of the container from becoming coated in produce or liquids. Most bags nowadays are made out of plastic

Ban and the rule
India consumes around five million tonnes (mt) of plastic products every year. Of this, plastic bags alone form a large part. The country doesn’t have a national ban on use of plastic bags. However, on their own, several states have imposed the ban. The ban makes it illegal to manufacture, import, sale and transport of plastic carry bags. No shopkeeper, retailer, trader, hawker or vendor is allowed to supply goods to consumers in bags. Any infringement of the notification could result in imprisonment or a fine or both. Recurrence of the offence may lead to more penalties.

The Recycled Plastics Manufacture and Usage (Amendment) Rules, 2003, state that no person shall manufacture, stock, distribute or sell carry bags made of virgin or recycled plastic bags which are less than 8 X 12 inches (20 X 30 cm) in size and which do not conform to the minimum thickness specified in Rule 8.

No vendor shall use carry bags made of recycled plastic for storing, carrying, dispensing or packaging of foodstuffs. No vendor shall use containers made of recycled plastic for storing, carrying, dispensing or packaging of foodstuffs. The minimum weight of 50 carry bags made of virgin or recycled plastic shall be 105 gm plus or minus 5 per cent variation and the carry bags of larger sizes shall be of proportionate increase in weight.

Difficulties in letting it go...
Retailer’s perspective: Since polythene bags are cheap, businesses find it convenient. And since there is still absence of cost effective environment friendly alternatives, they are not willing to let go of it.

 

Consumer’s convenience: The thought of carrying a bag for shopping is in itself taxing. The durability, strength, low energy intensity and light weight make plastic bags preferred.

Manufacturer’s woes: The manufacturers and traders are also concerned about the environment but they feel a blanket ban on use of plastic is not the solution. Many distributors and suppliers of plastic bags feel they may go out of work unless a cheap alternative is found.

The big debate:
Ashish Mallik of Modi Enterprises that has been selected by MCD for supply of degradable plastic gives a very interesting point of view as he informs that as part of Bhagidari Scheme, he had taken on to inform the RWAs and NGOs about effective disposal of garbage and for the purpose they had installed two types of beans, blue and green for different types of garbage. Sadly, the project failed due to lack of follow up as trucks assigned with the duty of ferrying the garbage wouldn’t turn up the number of times they were asked to do the rounds and skip their function resulting in failure of the system as garbage would rot and accumulate for days together. He blames the government for failure of the system as he says that although, they get the budget, they provide the platform, yet they fail in follow up.  Hence according to him, “Plastic is not a problem but its disposal is”.

When asked if taxing should be resorted to instead of banning, he said, “No, the Indian retailer is as it is burdened with various taxes, one more would add to his already built up woes and he would certainly try to pass the buck onto the shoulders of the consumer”.

He gives another example in favour of plastic bags, ”Imagine if you have to buy only two bananas, would you not prefer a small poly bag to carry it instead of bringing it home in a large Thaila”.

He concludes comparing the price of plastic bags that start from 1 rupee with that of Jute bags that start from 10 Rs.

"I am myself a regular shopper at Vishal Mega Mart and I am hurt by the fact that I have to pay extra 5 Rs. for each bag that I buy from them. Earlier, it made a style statement in my house with its usage in almost everything, whether I was carrying grocery from the shop or carrying tiffin to my office.  And everytime I visit the megamart, I never fail to complain which is surprisingly met with a helpless smile by the staff".

Alternatives
The debate and the hullabaloo continues as we struggle to find it’s best substitute out of the following:

1.       Biodegradable bags made from fabrics, popular as Thaila

2.       Nylon bags that can be used and reused several times

3.       Paper bags and packets

4.       Wicker basket, jute bags, sacks

5.       Canvas bags

A ray of hope in Conserve India
Born of a desire to reduce India's mountain of waste, improve energy efficiency, and help some of Delhi's poorest out of the city's slums, Conserve India, an NGO, thought of  a novel idea of converting  plastic bags into high fashion.

The move came in the right time when the world was thinking, "What to do with the thousands of plastic bags that could not be composted or recycled locally".

After much experimentation, they thought of not recycling, but upcycling by washing, drying, and pressing the bags into sheets.  Handmade Recycled Plastic (HRP) was born and designs for handbags, wallets, shoes and belts quickly came flooding in.  The challenge was apparent-Use high fashion to support better lives for the poorest and a cleaner environment for all.

Today, Conserve India employs and trains hundreds of people from Delhi's most disadvantaged communities to free their streets of the plague of plastic bag waste.  Once the waste bags are turned into HRP products they are sold for profits which can be spent in those same communities on education and welfare programmes.

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