The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike’s (BBMP) Dry Waste Collection Centre (DWCC) at Dattatreya Temple ward in the city gives a feel of what a landfill looks like, with a compactor — full of rotting wet waste stuffed in transparent and black plastic bags — standing inside, the leachate leaking onto the floor, and trash strewn all over the floor. Saravana, the man who looks after the DWCC, is busy sweeping the trash. Just then, a localite comes with a big polythene bag, full of trash. Saravana carefully puts it in the compactor without opening it.
He says this is a regular affair, and he hasn’t seen any reduction in plastic usage among people. Banned plastic is seen everywhere, either segregated and given to autos, or simply dumped in the waste.
Back with vengeance
Ban on polythene carry bags, along with many other single-use plastic items, came into effect in March 2016 in Bengaluru. Manufacture, storage, sale and usage of plastic carry bags, plastic banners and buntings, plastic flags, plastic plates, plastic cups, plastic spoons, and plastic sheets used on dining tables, and cling films were banned, and heavy fine ranging from 25,000 to 2,00,000 was suggested for violations.
However, today, the reality is different. All the banned products used to be available everywhere for sale. Despite the enthusiastic participation by groups of volunteers across the city in helping the BBMP implement the ban and providing the alternatives, the shops continued to sell low-value plastic, until last month. They are sold even now, but not so brazenly, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent push for a ban on single-use plastics, declared at the United Nations (UN).
A necessary evil for many
Arun has been selling vegetables in Malleswaram market for three years now. Brinjal, corn, peeled hyacinth beans and other veggies, packed in thermocol plates, wrapped in cling films, adorn the shelves of his small shop on Sampige Road.
Why is the cling film wrap necessary? “It protects the vegetables from dust and pollution,” Arun says. He adds that the customers demand it for hygienic purposes, and vegetables are packed with cling wraps in the K R Market wholesale vegetable mandi itself. “Ban the manufacturing, then we can follow it, no use catching and fining us,” he remarks.
In a textile shop in Hanumantha Nagar, the shopkeeper is busy stuffing the newly purchased cloth into its plastic cover — thicker than 50 microns, but it will go straight away to the garbage once the cloth is taken out of it.
“You can’t ban this kind of plastic. If it is, the entire textile business will collapse,” he says, explaining how wrapping the cloth in plastic helps him protect it. Same is the case with a shopkeeper in Malleswaram who sells copper and bronze puja articles, all neatly wrapped in thin plastic. They protect the items from getting oxidised and humidity, he explains. A streetvendor who sells faux leather clutches in Girinagar says plastic helps her save the goods from rain and dust.
Lack of viable alternatives
Jagadish Kamath runs a takeaway counter in Malleswaram. He is worried about viability of packaging material that can substitute the plastic covers he used to pack the fried items. He is also worried about how to display the items. The brown paper bags that are suggested as alternatives don’t really serve the purpose — they aren’t durable enough, not transparent so the customers can’t see the content, and they let the traces of oil come out, irritating the customers. He spends Rs 1.5 per paper bag — double the money needed for a plastic cover of the same size. “Plastic ban is fine, it is needed, but what is the alternative for selling items that require plastic packaging?” he asks.
This is the story of many sellers across the city. Many chat-sellers line their plates with a thin piece of plastic because the customers think it is cleaner, as they don’t trust the water street vendors use to wash the plates. It makes washing the plates easy as well, especially when the edible item is oily.
A chat seller in Basavanagudi said he brings 300 steel plates and spoons every day from home, uses them and takes it all home at the end of the day for washing, as there is no facility for him to wash it on the pavement. While he shows that where there is a will there’s a way, neither are all chat sellers driven enough to do it, nor can they invest on reusable cutlery in a large quantity.
Meanwhile, plastic packaging among branded edible items, grocery and essential items continues unabated. The multilayered packaging that is difficult to recycle reaches the landfills every day.
Solution for this lies in extended producers’ responsibility (EPR), says Malini Parmar, member of Solid Waste Management Round Table (SWMRT). “It’s not as difficult as we think,” she adds, explaining how each company can tie up with shopkeepers to implement it.
“Now it is time big polluters with branded products are asked to do their part. Instead of greenwashing, they need to take concrete steps towards extended producers’ responsibility. Reverse logistics isn’t as difficult as some imagine it to be,” she adds.
Alternatives more harmful
Multi-layer plastic-coated paper plates and paper cups that have thin plastic coating are not banned in any notification, and are being sold and used everywhere. These look eco-friendly; however, the cost of manufacturing and recycling them makes them a costly non-green affair. Simple plastic, if segregated, can be used in roads or in recycling, but things coated with plastics or shiny layers are difficult to process and involve extra cost, which makes them more taxing than plastic. Sharada, a volunteer from Yelahanka, says paper cups are taxing on the environment and volunteers plan to take it up with the central government, as they are not included in the current list of banned items.
Same is the case with nonwoven polypropylene (NWPP) bags, commonly known as ‘Chinese jute bags’ which are mistaken for cloth bags. They can be reused many times, but once they become overused, there is no way to recycle them. There is also ‘biodegradable plastic’ which cannot be recycled along with plastic and cannot be put into regular composting as well — it needs high industrial composting temperatures to degrade.
Though the ban on single-use plastic items is much-needed to maintain a better environment, there needs to be a solid plan of action to make it a friendly ban that won’t hurt anyone’s interest, while helping manage the city’s waste better.