Plastic bans spread in India. Winners and losers aren't who you'd expect.

As the world's second largest country takes on a glut of plastic waste by targeting single-use items, some results are surprising.

By Yasaswini Sampathkumar
Published 12 Feb 2019, 09:31 GMT
In Kalyan, on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, trash pickers look for sellable plastics at the ...
In Kalyan, on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, trash pickers look for sellable plastics at the dump. The country has big plans to reduce plastic waste.
Photograph by Randy Olson, Nat Geo Image Collection
This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

Amudha, who goes by only her first name, sells flowers for a living in Chennai, one of India’s largest cities. She used to spend 15 percent of her profits buying plastic shopping bags for her sales. Now she saves that expense and wraps her customers’ flowers in the broad leaves plucked from a tree on the sidewalk.

This small windfall‒she used to spend 60 rupees (0.84 USD) a day on bags‒came about at the beginning of this year, when the state of Tamil Nadu in the southernmost part of India banned 14 types of plastic, including the diaphanous bags Amudha used to buy.

The ban in Tamil Nadu, home to nearly 68 million people, is part of an ambitious national campaign to rid the world’s second-most populous nation of plastic waste. Last June, as India hosted the United Nations’ World Environment Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced its intention to eliminate single-use plastic by 2022.

Modi’s crusade builds on efforts to ban certain single-use plastics that began in 2009, when the state of Himachal Pradesh in northern India became the first to ban plastic shopping bags. Delhi, India’s capital city, adopted a more expansive ban that included bags, cutlery, cups, and plates in 2017.

By the beginning of this year, local governments in more than half of India’s 29 states and 7 territories had crafted legislation taking aim at single-use plastic. Bans on thin plastic shopping bags are the most common regulations. State government officials are also working to reduce the manufacturing of plastic by shutting down factories and preventing import of plastic products.

They are also refining an effort begun in 2016 to establish “extended producer responsibility,” or EPR guidelines that require manufacturers to pay for the collection and recycling of waste their products become. And, local administrations at the city, town, and village levels have been asked to ensure that consumption, distribution, and sale of banned plastic is prevented.

To people like Tania Banerjee, a writer in Mumbai, these changes couldn’t come soon enough.

“Large chains like McDonald’s are no longer providing plastic straws,” she says. “I have also stopped buying bottled water and soft drinks.”

Big impact

India has a fairly low per capita use of plastics (24 pounds or 11 kilograms a year, compared to 240 pounds or 109 kilograms in the United States), but with a population of 1.35 billion, this translates into more than 550,000 tons of mismanaged plastic waste reaching the ocean every year.

The Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers, which flow thousands of miles from their headwaters in the Himalayas, both carry huge loads of plastic to their deltas in the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges alone, which provides drinking water for more than 400 million people, transports an estimated 110,000 tons of plastic every year to its mouth and ranks second only to the Yangtze River in China on a Top 20 list of rivers, published in 2017, that move the most plastic waste to the seas.

In spite of India’s relatively low consumption of plastics, nearly 40 percent of the country’s plastic waste is neither collected nor recycled. It ends up polluting water supplies and soil, including agricultural land, and is consumed by stray animals, including the occasional elephant as well as India’s sacred cows. (An informal network of scrap dealers separates recyclables collected by waste pickers, but that almost never includes flimsy plastic packaging which has little or no commercial value.)

A patchwork of penalties

Success of the bans, so far, is mixed. The types of banned products vary from state to state and both consumers and retailers say there has been confusion over what’s banned and what’s exempted, as well as uneven enforcement and buy-in from leaders.

Governments face resistance from manufacturers and wholesalers of plastic products. The All India Plastic Manufacturers Association contends the ban in Maharashtra has cost manufacturers millions of dollars and tens of thousands of workers their jobs, and the Tamil Nadu Plastics Manufacturing Association has challenged the Tamil Nadu ban in court.

In other regions, traders have gone on strike and some argue that the ban disproportionately and unfairly affects small retailers.

Convincing consumers to shift away from the convenience of plastics is not easily accomplished. Two states that tried to ban plastics locally in 2016 and 2017 discovered how hard it is to change behavior. In Karnataka, even public officials defied a ban of single-use laminated paper cups and candidates for office used polythene banners during their campaigns. In Assam, a state heavily reliant on the Brahmaputra River, many retailers openly ignore a ban on plastic shopping bags announced last year.

Delhi and Kolkata, with populations of 25.7 million and 14.7 million respectively, have the highest per capita consumption of plastic products in the country. Yet so far, neither city has strictly enforced their bans.

In contrast, Mumbai, state capital of Maharashtra, India’s commercial nerve-center, began enforcing a ban last June that imposes tough penalties for people caught selling or buying 22 banned items, including disposable polystyrene plates and plastic shopping bags. First-time offenders can be fined 5,000 rupees (70 UDS)‒a stiff penalty for Mumbai’s large population of migrants who survive on the city’s thriving street food culture. Third-time offenders face a fine of 25,000 rupees (350 USD) and the possibility of spending three months in jail.

By the end of last year, nearly 400 companies and manufacturing plants dealing in the banned materials were shut down. Maharashtra has issued a directive to large companies asking them to create a reserve fund for buying back and recycling single-use plastics used in food packaging.

Making plastic bans work

Yet progress is visible on some fronts. The restaurant and food-service industries are among the most heavily impacted; yet Swiggy, one of India’s largest food delivery apps, has vowed to provide its restaurant partners in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu with sustainable packaging.

Research into such biodegradable and plant-based materials has accelerated, even though experts have pointed out there can be problems with the way some of this stuff breaks down in the environment. Pepsi is considering a pilot project for its industrially compostable packaging in India. A recent study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture suggests that using a combination of starch, protein, and glycerol could create thin films with enough strength and flexibility to be used as an alternative to plastic.

And in a number of states, the bans have been enthusiastically embraced. Maharashtra, for example, reported a 40 percent drop in plastic waste in the seven months since the ban began there.

In Tamil Nadu, a government effort to educate consumers and manufacturers is considered a help. Tamil Nadu is India’s second-largest economic engine after Maharashtra and is widely seen as a relatively well-governed state‒an all-too-rare governmental condition they hope will give the plastic bans a better chance to succeed. Last summer, government offices and institutions there were asked to eliminate single-use plastic ahead of the state ban.

Officials also put some of the state’s highest-ranking public administrators in charge of overseeing the launch of a ban that outlawed disposable cutlery, laminated paper cups, plastic bags, and 11 other plastic items. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board also is monitoring inter-state checkpoints to prevent the influx of banned products from other regions.

Those efforts have been bolstered by infomercials featuring local celebrities in the local media and a consumer education program that linked single-use plastic to pollution, poor health, overflowing drains, and breeding mosquitoes. Universities and schools have been asked to conduct workshops for students.

By the first of January, street vendors who used to have small mounds of plastic waste near their shops started switching to reusable materials, paper, and plant fibers to pack and serve food. Women’s self-help groups are swamped with orders for bags made of cotton and jute. Inmates of a prison started selling cloth bags at the prison bazaar.

Vendors by the beaches now give their customers paper straws with coconut water or other purchases. “Fifty or sixty years ago, straws were usually made of paper,” says Murugan, one of the vendors. “We are simply returning to the past.”

Some say rural residents of Tamil Nadu are benefiting financially from the plastic ban, as demand rises for such natural materials as banana leaves (lining plates), hollow papaya stalks (straws), and lotus and areca nut leaves (packaging material).

Many Indians live in multi-generational homes and there is living memory of using sustainable alternatives. Kamakshi Subramaniyan, a 93-year-old civic activist in Tamil Nadu, says she is thrilled to see people carrying bags made of cotton and jute. “We used to take metal containers with tight lids to buy oil. That should restart as well,” she adds.

Like Amudha using leaves to wrap her fragrant flowers in Chennai, many others are making small changes to their lifestyles. They appear convinced that the bans will have a positive impact on their lives.

Amudha’s act of reaching for a tree might be more than just a symbolic act towards a more sustainable future.

Yasaswini Sampathkumar is a journalist based in Chennai, India.

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