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Is Tamil Nadu ready to be plastic-free?

Lack of easy availability of cost-effective alternatives, a rigid plastic manufacturing industry and livelihood concerns as thousands of jobs are at risk still to be addressed, and fast.

Published: 04th November 2018 08:44 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th November 2018 08:49 AM   |  A+A-

Plastic

For representational purposes (File | EPS)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Come January 1, 2019, Tamil Nadu’s dream of becoming plastic-free, at least partly, will be put to litmus test. While the State government says it is doing all it can to successfully implement the ban, key stakeholders such as traders and manufacturers believe Tamil Nadu is not ready. Further, the ban’s success will depend on significant changes in consumer behaviour that may not happen as quickly as hoped for.

Nonetheless, Maharastra’s recent ban on single-use plastics may offer a positive model on how change for the better is indeed possible, regardless of some key sticking points. Lack of easy availability of cost-effective alternatives, a rigid plastic manufacturing industry and livelihood concerns as thousands of jobs are at risk still to be addressed, and fast, if the TN’s efforts to clean up are to bear fruit. The Government Order on June 25 banned the manufacture, storage, supply, transport, sale or distribution of certain “use and throwaway plastics”. A total of 14 products were included in the list of items that will be banned from January 1.

Shambu Kallolikar, principal secretary of Environment and Forests Department and chairman of Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), acknowledged that they are grey areas that need to be addressed, but said the government was determined to implement the ban. “Factors like pressure from industry, livelihood concerns can’t override the level of environmental damage single-use plastic is causing.”    However, with two months to go for the ban to be implemented, the stakeholders are sceptical on how the ban will be implemented without affecting the state’s economy.  

Industry reluctant 
KG Ramanathan, president, Indian Centre for Plastics in the Environment, said sudden bans can be devastating in low-income communities where small businesses operate on tiny margins. “Imposing a ban on plastic products without any national policy would be impractical. It would affect the consumer, as well as the industry, and many may migrate to the neighbouring State.”

ALSO READ: State-owned TNPL resists ban on plastic-coated paper cups

Salem City Chamber of Commerce’s general secretary, A Jayaseelan, for instance, claimed that at least five lakh people were employed directly or indirectly through plastic manufacturing and sales. “The government gave permission for starting plastic manufacturing industries till April 2018 and then announced the ban. Owners of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) got a loan from banks and started businesses. How will they repay the loan? If the plastic manufacturing factories closed, the State Government will suffer a  `2,500 crore loss every year,” he lamented. His concerns are echoed by other industrialists, especially in Coimbatore who appear confident that the ban will actually be postponed.

Their argument is on the grounds that alternatives to plastic are not yet widely — or cheaply — available with the manufacturing infrastructure not yet in place. Further, they argue that consumers have yet to alter behaviour on a significant scale so as to make the ban seem viable. Another argument is that the government had targeted the relatively ‘smaller fish’ rather than those plastic products that cause the most damage. “The real issue is with non-recyclable plastics like the multi-laminated packaging. The products that government banned are all recyclable,” complained G Sankaran, president, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry Plastic Association. 

‘Alternatives few’
Traders working on small margins say that the alternatives to plastic are fewer, not easily available and worse, too expensive. The higher cost of alternatives will either eat into their profits or force them to raise prices — which may affect sales. Either way, the traders will lose out, is the view. 

KPN Muthuvelayudham, president of Tirupur Javuli Vyabarigal Sangam said that textile shop owners in the district had started shifting to using non-woven bags. “The price for a plastic bag and a non-woven bag is not the same. We are facing some loss,” he pointed out. In fact, many shops were still sticking to plastic as paper bags tear easily and the cost of cloth bags is seen as prohibitively high. 

Those in the food industry are struck by similar concerns. Indeed, the restaurant business is considered one of the largest users of single-use plastics, and since the ban was announced many food outlets across the State have attempted promoting reusable alternatives to plastic products. However, these efforts have had little traction, they said. 

For instance, the Tiruchy food safety department worked with the restaurant industry to promote alternatives. Six restaurants in the city, including Hotel Sangeetha’s, Hotel Adayar Anandha Bhavan and Hotel Sangam joined the initiative earlier this year. They were urging customers to bring their own containers to reduce the usage of plastics. However, the effort died down in just days. The Madurai Corporation too attempted such an effort, which failed. K Thirupathi, a member of the Madurai District Hotel Owners Association, said on one hand, it was not cost-effective for restaurants to use containers of alternate materials and on the other hand, customers were unable to come out of the ‘plastic’ mindset.  

Jinnah, the owner of New Mass Hotel in Madurai, said: “We normally give three varieties of chutney, sambar and chicken or mutton gravy for with an order of idly or dosa. But when the customers brought their own containers for takeaway orders, we were unable to provide all sides,” he said.

“Similarly, we tried wrapping takeaway orders in butter paper, but most of the customers disliked eating on papers,” he added. The alternative was banana leaves which added significantly to the business overheads. Indeed, Mathiazhagan, a major banana leaf producer in the state, from Tiruchy said, “The sale of banana leaves has increased in recent times. Currently, we are selling them at promotional prices to encourage sales. Following the complete ban from January, we are expecting a moderate rise in sales.

Some, have also accepted the inevitable and bitten the bullet, despite the costs. As Ajay Kumar of Royal Kik Cool Drink manufacturer in Tiruchy, said, “Smaller industries like ours are not yet notified to replace plastic containers but we have planned to switch from plastic to aluminium containers just in case.” The cool drink manufacturer said that the alternative containers had caused their production cost to increase by 25 per cent, forcing them to raise their rates.  

Ball in govt’s court?
Despite the misgivings, the government has shown every intent of going ahead with the ban. “The preparatory works undertaken post notifying the ban order have been satisfactory. The steering committee headed by Chief Secretary and the three regional coordinators continue to receive and examine the petitions from the industry. All the stakeholders have to be taken on board,” Kallolikar said. 

On alternatives to plastic, Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Department is supporting entrepreneurs manufacturing eco-friendly alternatives. Justice P Jyothimani, head, NGT’s Southern Regional Monitoring Committee, constituted for effective implementation of Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, told the Express that the committee would offer its expertise and support the plastic ban. 

Calls for revival of EPR
Interestingly, environmentalists agree with plastic manufacturer Sankaran on one point — that to truly clean up, the revival of extended producer responsibility (EPR) will be crucial as the single-use plastics only form 47 per cent of total plastic waste and the remaining 53 per cent multi-layered plastics like chocolate wrappers which are not recyclable.  

Environmentalist Dharmesh Shah, who was part of the central committee that framed Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, said EPR targets have to be accounted for at the national level, irrespective of which state the products are sold or consumed in. “Different policy instruments like take-back schemes, pay-as-you-throw or waste users’ fees, advance disposal fees, deposit refund schemes and recycling and composting incentives should be looked at,” he said. 

S Selvan, Additional Chief Environmental Engineer, TNPCB, said: “To make EPR realistic and make recycling meaningful, we are asking producers to tie up to form an association or utilise the existing associations in making contributions and work out a detailed action plan in accordance with the rules and coordinate with local bodies.”

(Inputs from: M Sabari @ Salem, L Rajagopal @Coimbatore, S Sivaguru @ Krishnagiri, M S Thanaraj @ Tiruchy, Deepak Sathish @ Tirupur, Jose K Joseph @ Tiruchy, Vinodh Arulappan @ Madurai)

Come January 1, 2019, Tamil Nadu’s dream of becoming plastic-free, at least partly, will be put to litmus test.

  •  Plastic sheet/cling film used for food wrapping

  •  Plastic sheet used for spreading in dinning table

  • Plastic thermocol plates

  •  Plastic coated paper plates

  • Plastic coated paper cups

  •  Plastic tea cups

  • Plastic tumbler

  • Thermocol cups

  • Water pouches/packets

  •  Plastic straw

  •  Plastic carry bag of all sizes and thickness

  • Plastic coated carry bags

  •  Plastic flags

  • Non-woven polypropylene bags

permitted

  •  Plastic bottles

  • Plastic banners/board

  • Plastic spoon, Plastic oven sack

  •  Packed grocery items

  •  Compostable carry bag of any thickness

  • Tetrapack, Plastic containers

  • Plastic sachets, stationeries

Alternatives

  •  Plantain leaves, areca nut leaves

  •  Aluminium foils, Paper rolls

  •  Lotus leaves, Paper straw

  •  Glass/metal tumblers

  •  Bamboo, wooden products

  • Cloth/paper/jute bags

  • Paper/cloth flags, Ceramic wares

  • Earthen cutleries and pots



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