It would not be wrong to say that most consumers in India are actually anti-environment. The credit-card toting, mall-roaming affluent urban Indian is least bothered about how his consumption patterns harm the environment. The billions of plastic bags being disposed off into the landfills everyday are a stark example of how it will take a huge effort to make consumers more environmentally-sensitive.
While in India a ban on plastic carry bags does not mean anything, there are examples of other countries where people are voluntarily giving up the small convenience of carrying their purchases home in a plastic bag.
Much as Indians pride themselves on their culture and sustainable habits, ground reality show that as consumers, Indians are far from being environment-friendly. Unbridled and damaging consumption is what rules the Indian market scene.
Recently, some very interesting news came in from the UK about the trend of giving away plastic carry bags with every purchase. Retailers like Marks & Spencer have levied a charge of 5 pence on each consumer who takes away a plastic bag and the introduction of the charge has been a huge success. Retailers have cut down on their plastic bag usage by 85 percent. What is special about this usage reduction is that 22 big retailers in UK voluntarily started a drive to cut down on the plastic carry bags they give to their customers, and the consumers responded equally positively by voluntarily giving up the plastic carry bag for the sake of the environment.
In India, no retailer would ever think of taking such an environmentally-sensitive step, and even if it did, it would soon become unpopular with the very budget-conscious and environmentally-unconscious Indian consumer. At retail chains, one finds reams and reams of plastic sheets spiralled for vegetable-shopping. One time shopping does not mean wastage of just one carry bag, but many plastic carry bags. The Government of Delhi had ordered a complete ban on the use, sale and storage of all kinds of plastic bags but that hasn’t helped much, not with the small-time shop-keepers and door-to-door vendors. These retailers still happily stock plastic bags and when consumers set out for the market to buy groceries, carrying their own carry bag is the last of their worries. The ban, which has the backing of the Government of Delhi and the Delhi High Court, has not really been effective. While most of the bigger retail stores have given up plastic bags, the door-to-door vendors are still out of the regulators’ net.
How the UK markets are turning green
High profile campaigns and fashion-statement alternatives to plastic, combined with charges and incentives such as Green loyalty points have helped some UK retailers cut bag use by as much as 85%.
Marks & Spencer’s, one of the big UK retail stores, says the number of bags to carry shopping home has fallen by 80%, from 460 million bags a year to 80 million. Sale of jute bags in the United Kingdom has soared as use of plastic bags has fallen away.
Other retailers have given incentives to consumers for reusing of bags. Tesco, the largest retail chain in Britain, offers a ‘green point’ to consumers for every bag they reuse and has saved 3 billion bags in the process.
The burden on Britain’s waste disposal system has also lessened because of fewer plastic bags being tossed into the garbage bin. UK’s Waste & Resources Action Programme show the total number of bags in circulation fell from 13.4bn in 2006 to 9.9bn in 2008. The UK government has recently launched the "get a bag habit" campaign to remind people to reuse bags rather than hoarding them. It estimates the voluntary targets set by retailers will result in a reduction of around 5bn bags a year in the country and will eventually save 130,000 tonnes of CO2 – equivalent to taking 41,000 cars off the road each year.
The government has not provided any incentives either to encourage consumers to give up their disposable bag-fetish, like giving out of subsidised jute or cloth bags. With consumers who generally don’t have much environmental-sense, getting shopping to be plastic carry-bag free will be a long haul.
How much the plastic waste has invaded the environment can be best seen in Delhi these days, where the earth is being dug for the Metro Rail underground work. As the innards of the earth are exposed, one can see layers and layers of polythene bags in the dug up earth, blocking all water and nutrition from percolating down the soil. A decade long use of the plastic carry bag has virtually clogged every pore in the soil.
It may already be too late to reclaim our earth and water resources and it is certainly not the government’s job alone to protect the environment. Regulations can barely work when there are millions of consumers wantonly flouting bans and ignoring good sense. The plastic-bag problem, especially, is completely consumer-dependent. If there would be no demand for plastic bags, there would be no need to invest crores of rupees in recycling and waste disposal facilities. The government does need to bring all stakeholders—consumers, producers and distributors together, but the primary responsibility of ousting this environmental villain still rests with consumers