CHENNAI, India — Amul Vasudevan, a vegetable vendor in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, thought she was going out of business.
The state had banned retailers from using disposable plastic bags, which were essential to his livelihood because they were so cheap. She couldn’t afford to switch to selling her wares in reusable cloth bags.
Tamil Nadu was not the first Indian state to try to reduce plastic pollution, but unlike others it has enforced its law relentlessly. Ms Vasudevan has been repeatedly fined for using disposable bags.
Now, three years after the ban came into effect, Ms Vasudevan’s use of plastic bags has dropped by more than two-thirds; most of her customers bring cloth bags. Many streets in this state of more than 80 million people are largely free of plastic litter.
Yet Tamil Nadu’s ban is far from an absolute success. Many people still challenge it, finding the alternatives to plastic too expensive or too impractical. The state’s experience offers lessons for the rest of India, where an ambitious nationwide ban on the manufacture, import, sale and use of single-use plastic went into effect this month.
“Plastic bags can only be disposed of if the customer chooses, not the seller,” Ms Vasudevan said from her stall on Muthu Street in Chennai, the state capital. “Getting rid of it is a slow process; it cannot happen overnight.
In Indian metropolises and villages, daily life is intertwined with disposable plastic, considered one of the worst environmental hazards. Groceries of all kinds are brought home in disposable bags and food is served in single-use dishes and trays. The country is the world’s third largest producer of disposable plastic waste, after China and the United States.
But now Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has banned some of these ubiquitous items, including disposable cups, plates, cutlery, straws and ear plugs. Single-use bags are prohibited, but thicker and reusable ones are allowed. The ban does not include soda bottles and plastic packaging for chips and other snacks.
India is following countries like Bangladesh, the European Union and China in a large-scale effort to reduce plastic waste. But his plan is among the most ambitious, experts say, because it targets the entire supply chain, from manufacturing to using disposable plastics.
It remains to be seen to what extent the authorities will commit to enforcing the new law.
“A blanket ban is very difficult to implement unless local governments take strong action against violators and partner with people,” said Ravi Agarwal, who heads Toxics Link, an advocacy group which focuses on waste management. “Otherwise, we will end up with sporadic fines here and there, and newspaper articles.”
Last year, the federal government banned thin plastic bags, but enforcement, left to local authorities, was not strict. Enforcement of the new law also falls to local authorities, but the government now says it will involve the public, who will be able to report offenders and their locations with an app.
Public pressure on politicians – to fix blockages in drains and sewers caused by plastic, for example – is another key reason for Tamil Nadu’s relative success.
On a recent Friday morning, plainclothes police poured into Muthu Street, looking for the culprits. Near a section of street vendors selling vegetables and jasmine flowers, they found a street vendor packing produce for customers in disposable bags. Police fined this seller and seized dozens of contraband books from others, fining them and threatening them with jail.
Since December 2019, state authorities have collected over $1.3 million in fines; the smallest is around $7. But the work is never-ending – after officers dispersed on Muthu Street that day, some vendors have started using the banned bags again.
“We need to find cheap solutions to stop the use of plastic bags,” said Ms Vasudevan, who was not fined that day. “The rich understand what’s at stake, but for the poor, the government needs to make cheap cloth bags.”
Tamil Nadu has tried to solve this problem with subsidies and campaigns to promote cloth bags.
At the entrance to the Koyembedu wholesale market in Chennai, authorities have installed two vending machines containing 800 cloth bags, which cost 0.12 cents each. The machines are refilled twice a day. While the ban has undoubtedly harmed livelihoods, such as those involved in making and selling single-use plastic, it has been a boon for others.
About 25 miles west of Chennai, in the village of Nemam, about two dozen seamstresses make cloth bags while Bollywood music plays. Being part of a cooperative, they were able to increase their own income by making more bags.
“We are producing more cloth bags than ever before,” said Deepika Sarvanan, leader of a local women-only self-help group initially funded by the government but now self-supporting. “We are not producing even 0.1% of the demand.”
But for some businesses, like those selling live fish, plastic is hard to replace. “No one wants to destroy the environment,” said Mageesh Kumar, who sells pet fish at Kolather Market in Chennai. “But if we don’t sell them in plastic, there’s no other way; how are we going to feed our families?
For now, Mr. Kumar and his cohort are using thicker bags which they ask customers to return.
Still, Tamil Nadu has made more progress than other states that have tried to reduce plastic use. Its beaches, residential enclaves and industrial areas are largely free of plastic waste. Many locals conscientiously collect plastic for recycling and sorting waste.
The state pioneer was Nilgiri district, an area popular with tourists for its hill towns and tea plantations, which banned disposable plastic in 2000. There the charge was led by Supriya Sahu, a official who realized the dangers of plastic. pollution after seeing photos of dead bison with plastic bags in their stomachs. She launched a public awareness campaign.
“We made people realize that if you want tourism to survive, we have to stop using plastic,” said Ms Sahu, who is now the state environmental officer. “Any government-led program can only succeed if it becomes a grassroots movement.”
On a recent wet afternoon, the Koyembedu market offered a sign of success. Of more than two dozen stores, only two sold plastic-wrapped flowers.
“We’ve been selling newspaper-wrapped flowers for years,” said Richard Edison, a flower seller. “People are asking for it”