The problem of burgeoning plastic waste isn’t new to Mumbai. According to recent data released by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India generates 25,940 tonnes of plastic every day with 40 percent of it remaining uncollected. Metropolitan cities — Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai– alone contribute 50 percent of this total waste. The uncollected and untreated waste goes into drains, sea and landfills, causing massive land and water pollution. During the popular Ganapati festival in Mumbai last year, after immersion of idols, the total dissolved solids increase by 100 percent.
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To combat the menace of plastic waste, on March 23, 2018, the state-imposed a blanket ban on the use of plastic throughout the state, particularly Mumbai. The order banned the sale, manufacture, distribution, transportation and import of plastic, giving a three-month notice to manufacturers, distributors, and consumers to get rid of plastic including single-use plastic disposables like spoons, plates, bags, forks, straws amongst others. Apart from this, the use of plastic and thermocol for decorations, food items sold in plastic containers and plastic packaging were also banned. Before enforcement of the ban, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) through its mass plastic collection drive collected over 1.42 lakh kg of banned plastic from across the city. Environmentalists and citizens welcomed the ban, hoping the state had finally woken to the need to reduce pollution caused by plastic waste.
“Policymakers around the world are recognising and acknowledging how single-use plastic is creating a major menace in cities,” said BMC deputy commissioner Nidhi Choudhari in justification of the blanket ban. “In Mumbai, a coastal city, this plastic waste is threatening marine life, ruining our pristine beaches, choking our drains and killing our rivers. I think a city-wide restriction wouldn’t have worked. And therefore the state-wide ban was essential. Not only Maharashtra, but other Indian states too should follow suit and ensure that the manufacture of single-use plastic is curbed.”
Fortunately, a year after the ban, some changes are visible. All the major food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Teepee and Wagh Bakri have switched to paper straws, paper plates. Even small vendors selling juices are either using paper straws and encouraging customers to not use the straws. Grocery stores, which earlier used single-use plastic bags have now started selling groceries in paper bags or sell cloth bags for Rs 5-15. This has encouraged customers to carry their own bags. “I don’t give my customers groceries in plastic bags anymore,” said Anil Chauhan, owner of a grocery store in Chembur. “Either I wrap it in old newspapers or give it in paper bags. I always motivate my customers to carry their own bags or buy cloth bags from us. It hasn’t hurt my profit margin much”.
Besides the ban, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) took other initiatives to discourage use of plastic. In 2018, BMC launched a ‘Mega Rath Yatra’ to raise awareness about the plastic ban. BMC installed black coloured bins across the city where citizens could dispose plastic waste which was then collected by BMC trucks and transferred to dry waste centres in the city.
A toll-free helpline number (1800-222-357) was started that allowed citizens to ask the administration to pick up the plastic waste from the area surrounding their houses. On their official websites, BMC listed numbers of NGOs, companies and individuals who sell and produce alternatives to plastic. Plastic bottle crushers were installed at train stations.
The overall monitoring of the ban and its implementation was given to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) along with district and local administration. The Maharashtra Tourism Board was also included to monitor and spread awareness among tourists to not use plastic.
But as usual, implementation has been patchy. “I have started using cloth bags,” said Savini Singh, who lives in Andheri West. “I always carry it in my purse. But I am not aware of any helpline number or other measures by BMC”. When Citizen Matters tried to call the helpline number, it said it was invalid.
One of the main concerns is the segregation and recycling of collected waste. Godfrey Pimenta, the founder of the Watchdog Foundation, said as per the law, BMC is required to develop and set up infrastructure to segregate, process and dispose of plastic waste. It can either do it on its own or engage other agencies to do it. “However, most of the waste ends up in landfills or rivers, making the Mumbai coastline one of the most polluted in the country,” said Pimenta.
“The ban is a welcome step but as always implementation is an issue,” added environmentalist Gopal Krishnan, founder of Toxic Watch Alliance. “There need to be alternatives wherein the life cycle of plastic waste is reduced. BMC should use emerging technologies to help with waste management. Maharashtra Pollution Board is structurally weak with very little budget allocation”.
Activists pointed out that Mumbai can learn from Mangalore city. The Mangalore City Corporation (MCC) has provided plastic manufacturers’ land to set up plastic and dry waste centres. Mangaluru-based Canara Plastic Manufacturers’ and Traders’ Association (CPMTA) president B A Nazeer said that the main issue is collection and recycled material have a market too. “Other cities should adopt the same practice,” said Nazeer.
But by itself, that may not be enough for Mumbai, without the ban being strictly enforced. Though it does provide for fines for violators, a lack of awareness on health hazards caused by plastic remains a key issue. A study on ‘Toxic effects of plastic on human health and environment’ published in the International Journal of Health revealed that the use of toxic plastic can result in irritation and vision failure, breathing difficulties, respiratory problems, liver dysfunction, cancers, skin diseases amongst other problems. But since plastic has become part of everyday lives, it is essential to provide alternatives at subsidised rates which can be easily accessible by citizens and those whose livelihoods were based on manufacture and sale of plastic.
Little attention has been given to this aspect, however. Just as little attention is being given to waste pickers, who play an important role in collection, segregation and sale of plastic and other recyclable waste. The country as a whole has 1.5 million-4 million waste pickers working in the informal sector, who help the civic municipalities by filling the gaps in waste management. “According to the law under which a municipality is set up, it places dustbins according to the size of the population,” said Shashi Bhushan Pandit, who runs the All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh. “It is assumed that the generator of the waste will drop it in the bin. After that, it is the responsibility of the municipality to collect it from there (the transfer station) and treat it at the landfill. However, it is not the responsibility of the municipality to pick up the garbage from the source. That’s the major gap the informal sector has filled”.
Ragpickers and dealers have welcomed the plastic ban, despite the adverse effect on their earnings. “Earlier, the rag pickers used to earn around Rs 500-Rs 800 daily,” said Sadas Khan, Central supervisor of NGO Aasra Welfare Association. The NGO works with around 200 waste pickers collecting waste from Andheri, Vile Parle, Jogeshwari and areas around it. “After the ban, it has come down to Rs 200-Rs 300 per day. Sorting is the main issue. Plastic waste like thermocol, polythenes, bottles etc are still being used and discarded”.