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Delhi’s blanket ban on plastic bags

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In Delhi, a blanket ban on plastic bags starts this week. The latest effort by Delhi would mark the first time a city in India is enforcing a blanket ban on plastic bags within its territory. New York Times . 19 November 2012.


NEW DELHI–Babu Dayal sells fruit in front of the 3Cs Cineplex in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi. When a customer buys a kilogram of bananas or half a kilo of apples from him, he hands them over in a plastic bag. But starting Nov. 23, Mr. Dayal will have to hope his customers have their own bags, as the Delhi government will begin enforcing a ban on the manufacture, import, sale, storage and use of plastic bags, sheets, films or tubs.

The last time the city government tried to ban stores from giving carry-out plastic bags was in 2009, a move that proved woefully ineffective, and was roundly criticized by the industry (maybe it didn’t help that the city also held a convention to celebrate the use of plastic at the same time.)

Despite that setback, the case for reducing Delhi’s reliance on plastic bags is undeniable: the capital produces 250,000 tons of plastic waste every year, and a huge chunk of it comes from Delhi’s 14 million households, which use about five carry-out plastic bags a day, according to the city government.

The latest effort by Delhi would mark the first time a city in India is enforcing a blanket ban on plastic bags within its territory. The ban in 2009 allowed the use of biodegradable plastic of 40 microns or thicker, under the theory that heavy-duty plastic bags are used again and again, not disposed of. But the newest ban extends to all varieties of plastic bags, even those for garbage. (City government officials say they will think about how to deal with waste disposal later.) The only exception is for the bags used for biomedical waste.

The ban is being enforced under the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986, which carries a maximum penalty of 100,000 rupees, and five years of imprisonment.

However, Sandeep Mishra, additional secretary of the environment for the city government, said the city plans to only fine the users and the shops that distribute plastic bags nominally, though he did not give exact details. “It takes time for it to sink in,” he said.

Enforcement will involve a government-wide effort, he said. “We will rope in the police department, food and sales division and labor inspectors to enforce the ban,” he said.

Mr. Mishra said that the stricter plastic ban was necessary, in part because of the failure of the last partial ban. “It was almost impossible to enforce the ban last time around as everyone claimed they were using the bags that were allowed,” he said.

This time the ban extends to the manufacturing of plastic bags and tubs in Delhi as well. Anti-plastic activists say this won’t have an impact on commerce. “If products are produced, they will find a way to be sold,” said Prashant Rajenkar, senior program coordinator at the nonprofit Toxics Link.

Under the 2009 ban, thin plastic bags vanished from shopping malls, big retail outlets and government-run retail outlets, but were still available at smaller stores and used for garbage disposal.

The new ban is giving sleepless nights to plastic bag manufacturers in Delhi, who have petitioned the Delhi High Court to block it. The High Court has issued notices to the central government, the Delhi city government, the three municipal corporations of Delhi and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, asking them to respond to a petition by the All India Plastic Industries Association by Nov. 23, the same day that the ban goes into effect.

However, the government is confident that the courts would not get in the way of the city’s efforts to reduce plastic bag use. “Whenever we fight for an environmental cause, the courts have been in our favor,” said Mr. Mishra.

Government officials are also planning to start an awareness campaign about the separation and recycling of waste, using social networking sites, and will hand out a limited number of jute and cloth shopping bags to select Resident Welfare Associations.

Despite all the efforts, Mr. Rajenkar of Toxics Link said the ban may not work as well as the environmental advocates hope. “Plastic bags are very convenient, and unless there is an equally attractive alternative, people might not give it up completely,” he said.

Mr. Dayal, the fruit seller, agreed. Most of his customers buy his products on their way back home, he said, and they don’t remember to carry cloth bags with them. If it is deemed illegal for him to hand out plastic bags, he said, then he might offer a small bribe to the local policeman and continue to use the plastic bags.

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