New Delhi: Plastic, especially in the form of non-biodegradable bags, has become a target of the environmentally conscious. From San Francisco to South Africa, cities have outlawed, taxed or otherwise restricted plastic bags, even here in the developing world where immediate needs, such as jobs, often outweigh nobler aims.
Just last month, New Delhi passed a preliminary ban imposing a five-year jail term or a Rs1 lakh fine on anyone caught carrying or handing out plastic bags.
That did not stop 67,000 plastics professionals from convening here last week for Plastindia 2009, a five-day celebration of all things plastic. The trade show was billed as the second largest plastics convention in the world. (The first, K Fair, is in Germany.)
Businessmen and a few businesswomen came from around the world to look at extruders and polymer additives, printing machines and blown film and attended seminars on “differentiated packaging solutions with advanced technology resins” and “polyolefin, the changing face of the plastic industry”. Whenever they could, they complained of what they considered the unfair prejudice against the plastic bag.
“Politicians have gone overboard,” said Arvind M. Mehta, president of the Plastindia Foundation, the trade group sponsoring the conference. “Our industry is facing a problem and we have to fight.”
Seated in a makeshift office of four plastic walls behind a faux-wood plastic desk at the convention, Mehta repeated a line similar to one used by pro-gun groups in the US: It is not the plastic bag that causes the problems, he said, it is the person who uses it.
Globally, about 100 billion plastic bags are sold a year, according to the Film and Bag Federation, a unit of a US plastics trade group.
Most cities in the US have shelved plans to ban bags outright as San Francisco has or tax them as Ireland did, thanks in part to strong lobbying by industry groups.
But the “no plastic bags” mantra continues to echo worldwide, with big retailers pledging to cut back and consumers (even those who persist in more environmentally harmful activities such as frequent air travel) opting for paper and canvas carry bags instead.
In New Delhi, many consumers and shopkeepers, perhaps spooked by the possible jail time, have been assiduously avoiding plastic in recent weeks, using everything from cardboard boxes to baskets instead. In some countries, such as South Africa and China, the thinnest plastic bags have been banned in favour of thicker, reusable plastic bags, and recycling is encouraged.
But Plastindia conference attendees, many of whom are the second- or third-generation owners of plastics businesses, say there is no real substitute in some cases for the plastic bag.
“Put a man outside with a paper bag, let it start raining,” said Ridwaan Arbee, who runs Pak Plastics, a South African manufacturer of “Quality Candy Striped and Plain and Printed Vest Type” bags, a business he purchased from his father. “When the rain hits the paper, everything falls out,” he said.
Eliminate plastic wrapping in favour of paper and you risk halting the wheels of commerce, some bag makers said. “Plastic is visible, transparent,” said Harpal Singh, the chairman of Sangeeta Poly Pack, a Mumbai polypropylene manufacturer.
“We are very much in fear” of the New Delhi ban, said Anuj Jain, managing director of Sun Polybag, which displayed bags in its booths holding goods including potato chips and women’s underwear. If the government ban holds, Jain wondered, how would manufacturers avoid getting dust on their goods?
More important, Singh estimated, plastic bag manufacturing alone employs about a million people in India.
The country is among the 10 largest makers of plastic products, and executives here predict it will grow to be the third largest consumer of plastic goods by 2010, behind the US and China.
But even industry executives concede that bags’ longevity—standard plastic bags take hundreds of years to degrade, while biodegradable bags are expensive—does make them environmentally unfriendly. The head of Plastindia has a solution. “Western countries should find a way to convert them back to oil,” Mehta said.
Just in case they do not, the foundation simultaneously hosted in New Delhi a pan-Asian plastics recycling conference and meetings among Chinese, Indian and American plastics companies executives.
© 2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES