While Michigan is busy banning the banning of plastic bags, Delhi, the Indian city of nearly 10 million people, has just banned all disposable plastics. Unlike U.S. cities, which often favor the short-term interests of business over the long term care of the people and their environment, India isn’t afraid to take desperate measures when they are needed.
India is one of the world’s top polluters, but this ban is not so much altruistic as practical. Delhi’s three main trash dumps–Okhla, Gazipur, and Bhalswa–are “a depiction of mess that can be created for environment and health of people of Delhi,” said India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT) chairperson Swatanter Kumar at the tribunal. Delhi uses waste-to-energy plants to produce electricity, and when those plants burn plastic waste, they spew pollution into the air. And if it isn’t burned, the plastic ends up clogging the Yamuna, the second largest tributary river of the Ganges.
The NGT directive is clear: “The National Capital Territory of Delhi shall take appropriate steps against storage, sale, and use of such plastic material at the above-mentioned places and it shall stand prohibited with effect from January 1, 2017,” it says.
The waste-to-energy plants have all been put on warning, and will be fined around $7,300, for non-compliance, and for each “pollution incident”, which doesn’t seem like much of a deterrent. There will also, reports the Indian Express, be a $150 fine for any street vendors or slaughterhouses disposing of trash in public places. However, it seems that not many street vendors are actually aware of the ban. One week before the ban was enacted, shopkeepers were confused about the specifics of the law. Would a store selling plastic cutlery and cups, for instance, be subject to the ban?
“Instead of targeting us, the authorities should stop the factories that make these items,” anonymous shopkeeper told The Hindu.
One of the problems for stores is that plastic bags are way cheaper than paper or other materials. A plastic bags may cost 3 to 4 rupees, whereas a cloth bag costs 15 rupees. The obvious remedy is to charge customers for the bags, but that only works if the ban is effective enough that customers don’t just switch to a vendor that flouts the ban and offers free bags.
“We have already started keeping cloth bags instead of plastic ones, but we haven’t been able to fully stop using plastic, as customers ask for it,” said the anonymous shopkeeper.
This isn’t Delhi’s first attempt at a plastic ban, either. In 2009 the government banned plastic bags in hotels, hospitals, shopping malls, major markets, greengrocers, and others. The ban, says The Hindu, was effective at first but clearly didn’t work, because here we are again with a second attempt.
India isn’t afraid to take extreme measures. Last month it took almost 90% of its cash out of circulation in order to force people to pay tax on illegal black money. Compared to that, a plastic ban seems easy. But the government has 100% control over printing money, and almost no control over plastic bags, so perhaps even more desperate measures will be needed the next time around. Still, at least Delhi is trying to do something, unlike Michigan, which is actually encouraging the pollution of its lakes through lobby-friendly legislation.