Here’s What India And The World Should Learn About Plastic Bags From Chennai

Posted on July 1, 2013 in Environment

By Rajitha Swaminathan:

This January I made a trip back home to Chennai, after over two years of being away. Having spent over 20 years in Chennai, I felt a little overwhelmed with the changes that have taken place within the last two years. In this city, oddly and uniquely enough, politics and progress are dichotomous to a large extent. Changes included a metro rail system, new flyovers, more restaurants with exotic cuisines, more malls and too many cars, among many others. The changes were part of a larger transformation towards a better life. One particular change though, seemed very much ahead of its time, more so when I got back to New York — the ban of free plastic bags. Chennai, I can proudly say, is striding towards a better life not just socio-economically, but also environmentally.

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In February 2011, a rule was notified by the Urban Ministry of Environment and Forests that plastic bags should not be issued free of cost to customers, in an effort to curb the indiscriminate use of plastics. The rule states that consumers will be charged a fee which is prescribed by the Chennai Corporation, for every plastic bag any store gives them. In addition, these bags must conform to certain environmentally accepted standards of thickness and constituent pigments. So, now whether I shop for a few thousand rupees at a mall, buy a gorgeous silk sari from the famous Panagal Park, or pick up my weekly supplies of vegetables at a supermarket, I pay a separate and not insignificant price for carry bags.

This new rule of charging for bags leads to important behavioural changes in customers. I remember to take cloth or reusable bags from home, and even if I don’t have any on me, I am not indiscriminate in my use of carry bags. I use only what I need, I reuse what I can.

Cut to New York, USA: Apart from the handful environmentally conscious folks, only those of us who want to look cool by shopping at Whole Foods carry shopping bags on us. Most of us don’t care, forget, or don’t know how to reduce the use of non-biodegradable, non-renewable plastic. America is indulgent, at the very least, in its use of plastic bags. Approximately 380 billion plastic bags are used in the US every year. That’s more than 1200 plastic bags per resident, per year. Approximately 100 billion of these are plastic shopping bags! I know most of us are going, “…but there’s a lot of recycling that we do…” In response, here is another statistic: only 1-2% of bags end up getting recycled.

Charging customers for plastic shopping bags is a simple but very effective solution. The key is to make the amount of ‘penalty’ significant. Currently, many supermarkets incentivize reusable shopping bags by crediting customers 1 cent or 0.01$. That means I need to make a 100 visits to that shop to gain a dollar. Sorry, but that’s not going to inculcate a behavioural change in me, I’m only human! I argue that 25 cents of a quarter of a dollar is the perfect amount — not too much for those that really need a bag, and not too less that it makes you feel the pinch. Going by the above statistics, 25 cents per bag would cost me 300$ a year. That’s ten dinners less, not making it to my college reunion, or forgoing a new oven. In other words, that’s painful. That’s enough stick and no carrot to change what I have always been doing.

Pricing the use of plastic bags is better than a blanket ban on the use of plastic bags, which is present in many places, including in countries like India itself, South Korea, and even China. Plastic bags are convenient, light, and in many aspects, necessary. Blanket bans will only cause anger, inconvenience and discomfort; avoiding which is the whole point of being a developed country, no?

Simple, effective solutions can save the day. It’s time to charge for plastic bags. It’s time for us to realize there is a price to pay for environmentally hazardous plastic: 25 cents vs. the entire future generation.

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