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Vol. XXXI No. 10, September 1-15, 2021

Plastic city: Beating single-use plastic requires more than single-use enforcement

By A Special Correspondent

Earlier this month, the Chennai Corporation levied a fine of Rs. 25,000 on Indigo Airlines for using single-use plastic to package covid-preventive kits for its flyers. It was Dr. Manish Narnaware, the city’s Deputy Commissioner of Health, who noticed the single-use plastic envelopes during his frequent flights with the airlines. He had the material tested with the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board who confirmed that it was in violation of the plastic ban. Dr. Manish also recently led an inspection on several shops in the city to monitor compliance, as a result of which fines ranging from Rs. 100 to Rs. 500 were imposed on violators and banned materials were seized. The Corporation has confirmed that the drive against plastic would pick up pace in the coming days.

While there is no doubt that the renewed crackdown on banned plastics is a good move, it is unfortunate that enforcement was relaxed in the first place; after all, the ban on single-use plastics in the city came through in 2019. When the ban was introduced, things seemed to be going in the right direction for one hot minute – shoppers were encouraged to bring their own bags, paper packaging became more common and homes consciously switched to biodegradable garbage bags. When the pandemic hit, however, plastic slipped under the radar. According to data shared by the GCC with Citizen Matters, the administration raided 3,88,315 shops, seized 3,12,002 kgs of plastic and collected fines amounting to Rs. 1,05,13,700 in 2019. These numbers saw a sharp dip in 2020 – 73,992 shops were raided, 5,837 kgs of plastic were seized and Rs. 30,04,500 was collected as fines. Furthermore, plastic usage naturally rose during the pandemic with citizens relying more on home deliveries – plastic packaging returned with an increase in grocery and meal orders as well e-commerce shopping.

It must be admitted, of course, that public enforcement of the ban must have been hard during the pandemic – all departments were rightfully occupied in keeping the virus at bay. However, there can be no other explanation than a lack of serious commitment in explaining the irrelevance of the ban during the Assembly elections held earlier this year. As was covered in the lead story at Madras Musings in July 2021, the Corporation quite openly announced its leniency towards violations in view of the elections. Single-use plastic naturally saw a spike in usage at the polls, with voters being handed plastic gloves to cast their votes instead of other eco-friendly solutions. In a quote to The Hindu, a voter described his disappointment at seeing the mounds of plastic gloves littering the poll venues and streets – “I feel all our efforts to change the system at home has been a waste,” he said.

With the administration failing to utilize a superb opportunity such as the elections to set an example, it is no surprise that the citizens don’t seem to take the plastic ban seriously. Earlier this month, a weekend clean-up drive at Mammallapuram reported that half of all litter it collected at the beach behind the shore temple were single-use plastic such as PET bottles, polyethylene bags and food wrappers. More alarmingly, as Padmaja Jayaraman reported in Madras Musings in May 2021, a group of researchers in Pondicherry University discovered that Chennai’s street dust contains microplastic particles – in other words, we’re breathing in plastic on a daily basis.

All of the above illustrates the need for a consistent, dedicated campaign against single-use plastic, one which cannot give itself free passes when the going gets tough. The solution must aim at driving behavioural change that exemplifies the spirit of the law and it is the administration that must lead the way by example. The very fact that the enforcement of the ban on plastic has been entrusted to the health department during a pandemic must give us pause. In a quote to Citizen Matters earlier in April, Additional City Health Officer M. Jagadeesan says, “The health department with 42 sanitary officers, 200 sanitary inspectors and zonal health officers will intensify the drive against plastic usage post-elections.” Is this truly the best use of our resources? The city deserves better planning from its elected officials.

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