Ban without a plan

The mindless plastic ban threatens to add to India’s NPA woes

RA Chandroo

Acting almost on a whim to make India plastic-free, several states have been rampantly passing legislation to ban one-time use plastic items, most of it used for packaging. The latest addition to this bandwagon is the government of Maharashtra, which, through the Maharashtra Plastic and Thermocol Products Notification, turned its ineffective partial ban to complete. It has banned “products made from plastic & thermocol etc. which generates non-biodegradable waste.” While other countries are taking calculated steps — with the UK saying no to plastic by 2042 and France willing to halve its plastic usage by 2025 — India seems to be racing ahead quite mindlessly. While environmentalists are commending the move, it has jeopardised a multi-billion dollar industry and endangered thousands of jobs. The larger collateral damage on the packaging sector will soon be felt.

Enforced from June 23, people in Maharashtra can now be fined for the manufacture, usage, sale, transport, handling and storage of plastic, with fines amounting to Rs.5,000 and Rs.10,000 for first and second-time offenders while third-time offenders will be slapped with a fine of Rs.25,000 and a jail term of three months. Plastic manufacturing units in the state are now in a tough spot and could be saddled with a Rs.150 billion write-off. Apart from unused raw materials, two months’ worth of finished goods and retrenchment, the plastic manufacturing machines will also fetch nothing more than scrap value.

“According to official records, there are only around 400 plastic manufacturing units in Maharashtra, employing 10,000 odd people. That’s because the authorities pose needless hurdles in the registration process under the PWM 2016 (Amended PWM 2018). In reality, there are about 300,000 people directly employed in more than 2,150 units,” says Haren Sanghavi, co-chairman, environment committee, All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association. A majority of these — 60% — are small units who only specialise in a part of the manufacturing process. However, the bigger players straddle the entire chain that includes sheet-making, printing, bag-making, folding and packing. While smaller players have invested anywhere from Rs.500,000 to Rs.10 million, integrated players have sunk in Rs.50 million-60 million per unit. Taking into account that most of these machinery is funded by banks, it will only add to their NPA burden. Although the counter narrative hints at imminent employment opportunities as the demand for alternatives to plastic packaging soars, it is simply fallacious. Those displaced due to the ban, owing to their limited skill-set in plastic packaging, are unlikely to be entirely absorbed at paper or cloth packaging units.

The manufacturing units cannot even think of shifting the machines out of the state as almost 25 states and union territories have enforced a complete or partial ban. The environmental concern is genuine but the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board has demarcated the manufacture of 'polythene, plastic and PVC. goods through extrusion/moulding’ as ‘green’ or “not generating process effluents or emissions.” It, thus, must be understood that littering and improper waste management is the problem, not plastic manufacturing. With no proper substitutes for plastic available as of yet and use of paper bags potentially increasing tree felling, the drastic decision of banning plastic packaging might backfire. While it is important to note that one-time polythene bags of less than 50 microns are harmful to the environment, banning all kinds of plastic is surely not a step beneficial to the environment or to the economy.