A year into plastic ban, Tamil Nadu still struggles to kick the habit

Plastic products continue to be used in the State, especially by small vendors. While civic agencies doggedly pursue manufacturers and stockists, illegal networks ensure plastics stay in circulation. Easy availability of alternatives and getting TNPCB to enforce extended producer responsibility could be what T.N. needs to finally kick the plastic habit

Updated - January 02, 2020 05:28 pm IST

Published - December 29, 2019 12:41 am IST

On January 1, 2019, the Tamil Nadu government banned single-use plastics. It was not the first State to do so but it was considered a brave decision by a government that had a question mark over its survival at that point.

Twelve months on, the usage of plastics has come down drastically across the State but it has not entirely been done away with.

While many people have opted to use their own cloth bags, which has been a welcome change, small vendors continue to use banned plastics for want of alternatives. Also, despite the local bodies enforcing the ban doggedly, fake bio-degradable plastics are silently flooding the market. Many illegal units have been shut down but there seems to be a secret network that continues to thrive.

The Greater Chennai Corporation has taken the lead and seized over 500 tonnes of plastics. “The government has started reaping the fruits for the seeds it sowed at the beginning this year,” says G. Prakash, Chennai Corporation Commissioner. “The ban has helped people cultivate the habit of carrying their own bags, which is a big success. All the big brands have switched to cloth bags and have fallen in line,” he notes.

“Teams are conducting routine checks and we have till date collected over Rs.1.5 crore as penalty. Three months ago, we sealed two units manufacturing illegal plastics in Ambattur. Another firm was sealed earlier this month. We are taking strong action against violators,” he assures.

Biggest challenge

According to Mr. Prakash, the biggest challenge the Chennai Corporation faces is small vendors. “The problem is with the street vendors, hawkers and small players. They somehow get access to single-use plastics,” he says.

Statistics show that there are over 38,000 street vendors in Chennai. Small vendors who sell fish at various markets say that its very difficult to pack their consignments without single-use plastic bags. “The cost of banana leaves is quite high. A decade ago, we used lotus leaves but with ponds disappearing, lotus leaves have become scarce,” says a fish vendor at Saidapet market.


Those running pushcart eateries along roads in T. Nagar say they still do not have an alternative and so continue to use plastics for packing sambhar and chutney. A handful of Tasmac shops, operated by the State government still uses banned plastic cups. The manager at one outlet says they did try glasses when the ban took effect but customers broke about 10 glasses a day. Now, the bar has gone back to plastic cups.

Mixed record

In the temple town of Madurai, while the use of single-use plastic items has reduced to a great extent, plastic carry bags, non-woven bags and straws are still being used. Data provided by Madurai Corporation shows that officials have raided 93,645 shops and seized around 23,752 kg of banned single-use plastic products till date. Penalties adding up to ₹32.69 lakh have been imposed till date.

Assistant City Health Officer of the Corporation S. Vinoth Raja says three shops have been sealed in the city for using banned single-use plastic products. Other than the core city, usage of banned plastic products is higher in peri-urban areas like Othakadai, Karuppayurani and Samayanallur, says Assistant Director of Panchayats A. Chelladurai. Around 13,407 kg of banned plastic products has been seized by officials in rural areas and a fine of ₹6.77 lakh has been imposed.

Since the ban took effect, manufacturers of plastic products have started making other products, says Jeya Rajasekaran, president, Plastic Manufacturers Association-Madurai (PLASMA). “However, the banned plastic products are still entering Madurai from Dindigul, Erode, Puducherry and Andhra Pradesh,” he says.

Another PLASMA member, on condition of anonymity, says the banned plastic products are distributed to traders through a secret network. “The plastics are not stocked in godowns, but are always on the move. Traders and retailers can make a call to get these banned plastic products,” he says.

Finding takers

While the seized plastics are currently stored by the local bodies, the officials say that they are planning to give them to cement manufacturing companies. “We are also planning to use the seized items for laying roads,” says Mr. Chelladurai.

R. Vasudevan, Dean, Thiagarajar College of Engineering, says that durable roads have been laid in Kerala using plastics. “Tamil Nadu must also use the seized plastic products for laying roads. Moreover, burning of plastic for cement only produces more carbon dioxide,” he says.

Across the western districts, officials have strengthened checks against use of disposable plastic products, collected fines and conducted awareness programmes. While officials seize the banned products, in most of the districts, they are still looking at various options to dispose of the seized plastics. Over 500 tonnes of banned plastic products were seized in the Nilgiris, Coimbatore, Salem, Erode and Tiruppur districts since the ban was imposed.

In the Nilgiris, over 70 water ATMs have been set up along major roads in Udhagamandalam, Coonoor, Kotagiri and Gudalur taluks to provide safe drinking water to tourists. Following a High Court directive, soft drinks sold in plastic bottles have been banned throughout the district. Tiruppur has seen the use of plastics reduce in the city and rural areas in the last 11 months.

“Earlier, there used to be about 100 tonnes of plastic waste [in the city]. Now it is only about 10 tonnes of unavoidable plastic waste,” says an official of Tiruppur Corporation. However, the officials claim that most of the products are manufactured outside the city and, hence, they cannot take action against the units producing single-use plastics.

In Salem, officials say that initially the cost of eco-friendly alternatives was a concern for businesses. Over time, most of the businesses in the organised sector have switched over to eco-friendly materials such as plantain leaves and cloth bags. District Environment Engineer V. Gopalakrishnan says that in one year, the officials have shut eight units manufacturing banned plastic items.

‘Traders harassed’

In Coimbatore, most of the seized products are plastic carry bags. Civic officials say the wholesale shops and stockists are behind the distribution of banned plastic goods. The Corporation is negotiating a formal agreement with a cement factory near the city to handle all the seized products.

“The State government's failure to clearly categorise covers meant for primary packing has led to Corporation officials harassing both traders of plastic goods and retailers who use those,” says Coimbatore District Plastic Manufacturers Association president V.K. Balu.

“During raids by Corporation officials, this often becomes a point of dispute. The traders end up paying penalty or see their goods being seized over plastic products that are not banned,” he claims. Traders like him also say it is unfair to allow multi-layer plastics, which are not recyclable.

Erode Corporation Commissioner M. Elangovan says, “Of the 250 tonnes of municipal solid waste generated in a day in Corporation limits, 20 to 25 tonnes are plastic waste, sent to an incinerator.” However, in rural areas of Erode district, over 50% of the of the waste generated every day constitutes banned plastic items, officials say.

In Tiruchi, S. Sivasubramanian, City Corporation Commissioner, has approached priests in various places of worship to help streass the importance of doing away with plastics and segregating waste. “Even if the public does not listen to us, they will listen to their priest in churches, temples and mosques. We are taking their help to promote our cause,” he says.

The Tiruchi Corporation has managed to reduce the quantity of plastics in circulation in the city, but small vendors, especially those selling tea, snacks and food items, continue to use them. From January 1 to December 10, Corporation officials have seized 11,147 kg of plastic waste, from 779 shops. Fines adding up to ₹20,05,910 have been levied during this period. In four zones of the Corporation, a total of 8,762 shops have been inspected.

Tiruchi does not have any plastic manufacturing units. Plastics available in the city are being bought from wholesalers who source them from other cities. Regular checks are carried out at markets by Corporation officials. “We have signed an MoU with cement manufacturing companies to supply plastic waste generated in the city. Several have been taking it,” says a sanitary inspector.

In Ariyalur, 24 tonnes of plastics were seized from January to December in the 18 wards of the municipality. All the seized plastics have been sent to the Dalmia cement plant in Dalmiapuram. R. Vinoth, Ariyalur Municipality Commissioner, says the town has been adhering to the plastic ban. An MoU was signed with Ultratech ensures plastic waste collected on a daily basis is sent to the cement unit nearby. In Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts, banned plastics have started to creep in. Around one tonne of banned plastic items were seized at Kumbakonam recently.

TNPCB role

Central Pollution Control Board officials say that State pollution control boards have a greater role in enforcing extended producer responsibility (EPR) when it comes to plastics. “We have asked State boards to implement EPR on local manufacturers. If such plastics are collected by manufacturers, it will help eliminate a certain quantity of plastics,” a CPCB official says.

On the enforcement of the ban, CPCB officials state that, at the end of the day, the local bodies have to implement it. “They will have to step up education about the need to stop using single-use plastics among small shopkeepers and traders,” an official says.

On their part, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board officials say that around 140 units manufacturing banned single-use plastics have stopped operations. “If there are illegal units, we will take action,” says a senior official.

Losses incurred

According to plastics associations, over 1,500 micro and small units across the State that were into manufacturing single-use plastics have wound up operations in the last six months. “Those units that borrowed money from banks and other financial institutions for running their businesses have incurred huge losses,” says Tamil Nadu Plastic Manufacturers Association president S. Rakkappan. “Many people have even lost their jobs because of the ban,” he says, pointing out that getting licences for making biodegradable products is not an easy task.

(With inputs from P.A. Narayani in Madurai, V.V. Subramaniam in Thanjavur, Kathelene Antony in Tiruchi, Karthik Madhavan in Coimbatore, R. Akileish in Tiruppur, Rohan Premkumar in Udhagamandalam, S.P. Saravanan in Erode, Vignesh Vijayakumar in Salem, Deepa H. Ramakrishnan and Sangeetha Kandavel in Chennai)

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