On 23 March 2018, India’s second most-populous state, Maharashtra, banned the manufacture, use, sale, distribution and storage of plastics materials such as single-use bags, spoons, plates, PET and PETE bottles and thermocol (or EPS) items.

The state enforced the ban after issuing the ‘Maharashtra Plastic and Thermocol Products (manufacture, usage, sale, transport, handling, and storage)’ notification in March this year.

The state government gave a grace period of three months for brand owners, packaging suppliers and retailers to dispose of existing stocks or face fines. This grace period ended on 23 June.

Prohibited items

Under the notification products manufactured from plastics and thermocol have been covered by the ban. As a result, usage of the following has been banned:

  • Plastics bags with or without handles
  • Disposable cups, glasses and plates
  • Plastics bottles and containers

   (PET, HDPE, PP etc.)

  • Spoons, forks, and containers
  • Plastics packaging used to wrap and store the product is also included in the ban.

Exclusions from the ban

The list of items excluded include plastics used for packaging medicines and drugs, food-grade virgin plastics for packaging milk, compostable bags used for horticultural and agricultural purposes, plastics bags used for exporting goods, plastics used at the manufacturing stage, and plastics used for handling solid waste.

While the ban will be implemented within the state of Maharashtra, travelers entering the state from other parts of the country have been advised to be cautious in the disposing of plastics at railway stations and airports. The tourism police of Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation have been made responsible for enforcement, while Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) and district and local administration officials have been authorised to act.

Confusion

While the notification was passed in March, the state government has revised it many times over the course of three months, and four days before the ban became effective retailers and distributors were still awaiting clarity on how the mechanism will work.

One proposal that the government came up with is a ‘Buy Back’ policy where the stall owner is expected to offer money in return for a plastics bottle deposited by the user, and the state government proposed to repay the amount to stall owners. However, licensees claimed no official communication has been received.

Dairy operators in the state had been ordered to implement a buy-back mechanism for plastics milk pouches by 11 July, and they should print a buy-back price of no less than Rs 0.50 (US$0.007) for the pouches. In addition, dairy producers are forbidden to use aseptic plastics bags with less than a 50-micron thickness.

Officials of the State Cooperative Milk Federation, the milk employees’ unions, said that they have written to the state dairy development and environment departments seeking clarification. “We have asked for clarity on how to set up the recollection mechanism and how the refund system will work.

“Using plastics bags above 50-micron will involve some production and machine reconfiguration and setting up the buy-back mechanism for recycling will put additional financial burdens on dairies. So, the government should guide us in setting up the mechanism and also provide some funds. Otherwise, it may lead to an increase in milk prices,” said Arun Narke, former president of Indian Dairy Association.

NGO and industry response

Environmental groups and NGOs have welcomed the ban, saying that it should have been introduced ten years ago.

“The menace and damage caused by excessive careless and needless use of plastics has caused a massive damage to the ecosystem,” said Stalin D, the head of environmental group Vanshakti. “The burning and degradation of plastics releases carcinogenic toxins. The micro-plastics have entered our food chain. Wherever plastics is needed for packaging, such as milk pouches, cellulose-based compostable plastics can be used.”

Hiten Bheda, president of the All India Plastic Manufacturers Association (AIPMA), said: “There is no clarity on what a single-use plastics container is!”

Bheda pointed to the Indian habit of reusing articles. Plastics food service containers issued by restaurants, for instance, or containers in which goods such as yoghurt are sold are reused, first for shopping and later as household garbage disposal bags. “Why can’t the government define what it means by single-use plastics articles,” he complained.

The AIPMA, the Maharashtra Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI) and the Clothing Manufacturers Association of India, say the ban would have an adverse impact on the Rs 50,000-crore (US$7.2 billion) industry, besides affecting the ancillary units.

MCCI’s vice president Lalit Gandhi said the ban on plastics bags has derailed the production, packaging and supply schedules of the grains, bakery and clothing industries.

“Many units are on the verge of closure in the absence of the basic packaging material – the plastics bags – and we fear that nearly three lakh (300,000) people employed there may become jobless,” Gandhi said.

On the retail front, across Maharashtra there are more than 500,000 small-scale ‘kirana’ shops and between 800,000 and 900,000 small-scale merchants who sell food items in plastics bags. They buy products in bulk, split and repack them in small portions for sale to low-income customers.

The government argues that the Association of Retail Traders banned plastics without offering an alternative. The association retailers complained immediately when the first draft was passed and, on 27 June 2018, the state government amended the text to relax the ban on plastics bags, allowing mom-and-pop stores to continue to use them. The relaxation will be applicable for plastics carry bags above 50-micron. However, this relaxation is only until September 2018.

The association has assured the government that it will come up with a recycling plan. Small retailers have submitted a proposal that will see them take-back plastics bags on paying 50 paise (half a rupee) per bag to the consumer.