Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu plastic ban: How cotton and jute bags are picking up

Cotton and jute bags are becoming popular as Tamil Nadu says ‘no’ to plastic

The ban on single-use disposable plastic products in Tamil Nadu has led to a new ‘cloth wave’ in the State. Vendors are asking customers, ‘do you have a bag or would you like to buy one?’ It’s a question that has spawned a thousand reactions.

As bag-stitching workshops are held in cities like Tiruchi and women’s self-help groups in villages like Thottiyam get mobilised into contractual production, textile manufacturers in hubs like Karur and Madurai are repurposing their inventory to include cotton and jute shopping totes. For agencies involved in social enterprise, the resurgent interest in natural fibre products is an impetus to change the mindset from ‘use-and-throw’ to ‘mend-and-reuse’.

But how easy is it to produce the bags and how do they compare with their plastic counterparts? “Price-wise, plastic is always cheaper, say only 50 paise to ₹1 per bag. A small cloth manjappai (yellow cotton bag traditionally used in South India) costs ₹15-18,” says N Babu, of SN Rao and Sons, Chennai. The family-run business has been dealing in bags made of cloth, paper and plastic for the past four decades. “Because of its cost, customers think twice about investing in cloth bags for bulk orders like weddings but, with the ban on plastic, they have no other option,” he says. “We also stock biodegradable plastic bags (made from bamboo fibre), but they have a shelf life of only six months and are less sturdy than regular plastic. Customers aren’t interested in such experimental ideas.”

Tailoring boom

Home-based tailors (mostly women) are now making cotton bags for bigger manufacturers at rates as low as one rupee apiece in places like Madurai and Karur.

S Parthasarathy of Sri Sai Garments in Karur supplies the ‘grey fabric’ or ‘gaada’ cloth to companies that are capitalising on the bag boom in Tamil Nadu. “If customers are getting a cloth bag for ₹10-15, it is usually because the trader may be reselling export surplus/reject stocks sourced from cities like Karur or Coimbatore. Otherwise an export-quality bag will cost ₹150 or more,” he says.

The other way to reduce prices would be for manufacturers to use leftover fabric from other orders to make bags, a method many apparel manufacturers in Karur are adopting, he says. With direct and indirect home linen exports earning close to ₹6,000 crore in foreign exchange, Karur’s manufacturers cater to big name clients like Walmart, Ikea, Carrefour and JC Penney in the West. Automatic looms in neighbouring towns like Erode, Namakkal, Tiruchengode and Rasipuram take care of the weaving for many Karur companies.

“A minimum of 5 lakh cotton bags are being produced per month for domestic consumption, but this doesn’t meet the current demand,” says Parthasarathy. “We are expecting the plastic ban to create a fresh market for fabric bags within Tamil Nadu.”

The shift towards cloth bags is not limited to cotton; jute is another natural fibre with potential. “As the cotton market gets saturated, more people are opting to use jute, not just for bags, but also for decorative items and home furnishing,” says T Ayyappan, deputy director, National Jute Board, Chennai.

A natural fibre produced from Corchorus grass, jute sourced from Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal is being used by numerous small-medium business ventures in India. “Jute can be used not only to make gunny sacks, but also to stitch bags. The thread can be used to crochet handicraft items. Anyone with an industrial sewing machine (worth ₹15,000) can start a unit to produce jute bags. The NJB also offers 50% subsidy for manufacturers participating in foreign trade fairs,” says Ayyappan.

Not just a replacement

The market for cloth-based products has diversified into lifestyle sectors like wedding favour bags, women’s sanitary pad packaging, and even stationery. But it would be pointless if cheap cloth bags are simply used as a replacement for plastic, says Krishnan Subramanian who runs the Madurai-based social enterprise The Yellow Bag specialising in cotton carriers.

“Banning plastics has not really changed the people’s mindset towards more eco-friendly products,” he says. “Each cloth bag has consumed energy in terms of electricity, growing the crop and so on, which shouldn’t be just thrown away. Bags should be made in a quality that will last for a year or so. Resources — whether paper, cotton or plastic — are scarce. How we use the products is critical,” he says.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 8:47:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/tamil-nadu-plastic-ban-how-cotton-and-jute-bags-are-picking-up/article26436624.ece

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