Exposing inequity & injustice of India’s single-use plastic ban

Ban targets downstream users of plastic while producers continue to operate with minimal restrictions

India implemented a national ban on single-use plastic in 2022 to curb plastic pollution. However, the enforcement of this ban unveiled a stark contrast in the treatment of corporate entities versus small vendors. 

While the intention behind the ban was to address a global crisis, the burden seems to have disproportionately fallen on the shoulders of street vendors, highlighting a systemic failure to hold corporations accountable for their role in plastic production and pollution.

Plastic pollution is a global menace, with corporations identified as major contributors due to their massive production of single-use plastic products and packaging materials. The plastic industry, driven by profit motives, often prioritises convenience and cost-effectiveness over environmental responsibility. 

In India, large corporations continue to enjoy a level of freedom in plastic usage, and profit massively from plastic production and consumption. At the same time, they get to evade accountability for its environmental consequences such as pollution and ecological damage, which are borne by society at large. 

The single-use plastic ban primarily targets the downstream users of plastic, such as street vendors, while the upstream plastic producers continue to operate with minimal restrictions. It is imperative to shift focus towards holding corporations accountable for the entire lifecycle of their plastic products.

Packaging predicament

One of the glaring disparities lies in the realm of packaging materials. Corporations, especially those in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector, are major contributors to plastic packaging waste. 

The profit-driven nature of corporations often leads to environmental apathy, with a focus on short-term gains rather than long-term sustainability. Plastic, being a cheap and versatile material, has become the go-to choice for packaging in many industries. The extensive use of plastic packaging for products, ranging from snacks to personal care items, has become a symbol of modern consumerism. 

Yet, while small vendors are harassed for using plastic bags, the corporations responsible for flooding the market with plastic-packaged goods escape the same scrutiny. Despite mounting evidence of the environmental impact of plastic pollution, there is a concerning lack of stringent regulations holding corporations accountable for their contribution to the crisis. 

On the other side of business spectrum, street vendors, constituting a significant portion of India’s informal economy, are facing the brunt of the single-use plastic ban. While these vendors play a vital role in providing affordable goods to the masses, they are being harassed and penalised for using plastic packaging — a cost-effective and readily available option. The enforcement of the ban on street vendors fails to address the root cause of the plastic crisis: Corporate plastic production.

For small vendors, the transition away from single-use plastics is not merely an environmental concern but a significant economic challenge. Alternatives such as biodegradable packaging or paper bags come at a higher cost, impacting the already narrow profit margins of these businesses. In the absence of financial support and accessible alternatives, small vendors are left grappling with the economic consequences of the ban.

Street vendors often operate in environments lacking the necessary infrastructure for waste collection and recycling. Unlike corporations with the resources to invest in sustainable waste management practices, small vendors struggle to find efficient and cost-effective solutions for the disposal of alternative packaging materials. The lack of government support in developing robust waste management infrastructure further compounds the challenges faced by these vendors.

The informal nature of street vending complicates the enforcement of the single-use plastic ban. While large corporations operate within established frameworks, street vendors often find themselves at the mercy of inconsistent and arbitrary enforcement measures. The disparity in the application of the ban creates an uneven playing field, with small vendors bearing the brunt of punitive actions while corporations largely escape scrutiny.

Time for equitable approach

The current scenario underscores the urgent need for a paradigm shift in addressing plastic pollution. Instead of placing the burden solely on downstream users, the focus must shift towards holding corporations accountable for their role in the plastic crisis. Implementing a comprehensive Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework that mandates corporations to manage the entire lifecycle of their plastic products is crucial.

EPR places the onus on producers to take responsibility for the disposal and recycling of their products. This approach, when applied to the plastic industry, would compel corporations to invest in sustainable packaging alternatives, recycling infrastructure, and waste management systems. By internalising the environmental costs of plastic production, corporations would be incentivised to adopt eco-friendly practices and reduce their overall plastic footprint.

Governments must play a proactive role in regulating the plastic industry and enforcing EPR guidelines. Stricter regulations on the production, usage, and disposal of plastic, coupled with penalties for non-compliance, are essential to ensure that corporations align their practices with environmental sustainability. Transparent and consistent enforcement mechanisms can help bridge the gap between large corporations and small vendors in adhering to the single-use plastic ban.

Recognising the economic challenges faced by small vendors in transitioning away from single-use plastics, governments should provide financial support and incentives. Subsidies for the adoption of sustainable packaging alternatives, low-interest loans, and capacity-building programs can empower small businesses to make the necessary changes without compromising their viability.

Jay Vyas is with the National Hawker Federation. 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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