Plastic to cotton: make that switch!

The retailer ought to supply bags made of fabric and charge the customer more

This column was first published on 25 May 2012 and had to be republished due to technical glitches.

A vacant construction site in Greater Noida has suddenly become a dumping ground, the main component of the garbage being plastic bags that are carried away by the breeze and hit the windscreens of cars that drive by. Cattle chew on the bags, ingesting the poisonous polythene. Complaints on the Greater Noida authority’s website and to the various officers listed on it have, expectedly, been ignored. Frustration over government inaction in completely banning plastic bags is understandably increasing in the cities. In April, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s civic standing committee hotly debated a ban on the manufacturing of these plastic bags, saying finally that it is difficult to change end-user behaviour and if we are serious about banning plastic, we have to cut the malaise off at the source. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court issued a directive to the Centre and all state governments to completely ban plastic bags in response to a petition filed by a group of activists alleging government failure to dispose of plastic waste properly.

We know that plastic bags should be banned because they are made of petroleum, a non-renewable resource, their burning releases toxic gases, animals eat them and die and they choke drains and cause floods like in Mumbai in July 2005. Most importantly, they will stay forever on the planet. But can they be completely banned?

Yes they can. Several countries, including China, have done it. The seller merely has to switch to cloth bags, which will affect his margins but that is a small private cost to pay for larger social good. After the Supreme Court banned plastic bags a couple of years ago, something strange happened. Some smaller retailers complied and switched to cloth bags while hawkers completely ignored the diktat. But the larger chain stores started charging customers a couple of rupees for a bag in case you needed it. As in Western stores, this is meant to push the customer to remember to carry his own bag when he goes shopping. But the kind of customer who visits Lifestyle or Westside or Shopper’s Stop doesn’t care about 2 or 5. So, the plastic consumption continues and earns some small change for the store! To truly participate in eliminating plastic bag usage, the retailer ought to supply bags made of fabric and charge the customer more. That would not only be a deterrent for the customer, but also promote the objective of banning plastic.

Deepa Motiani, owner of Pearl Exports in Rajkot, who has been exporting cloth bags worldwide since 1996, says that she hasn’t found a domestic market for them because no chain store is interested in spending a little more on cloth bags. They would rather buy the cheaper plastic bag and recover the cost from the customer.

British retailer Tesco Plc. buys about 100,000 reusable cloth bags from Motiani. And a Tesco customer gets green Clubcard points if they bring their own cloth bag or if they reuse a Tesco carrier bag—anything that prevents the use of a new plastic bag.

It’s not as if Indians are not familiar with the concept of the cloth carrier bag. If we time-travel a bit to when our grandparents were householders, there were no plastic bags then. There was either the jhola bag with the long strap, more popular in the north, or the humble cloth bag with the name and address of the shop printed on it, like a permanent mobile advertisement. This cloth bag used to be given in weddings with the return gift packed inside.

Manisha Gutman, who runs a social enterprise in Pune called eCoexist, which sells natural and recycled products, makes an interesting observation. When her organization did a campaign two years ago called “Use Me Again" in Pune, to urge people to reuse plastic bags or better still switch to a cloth bag, she found that in the more traditional areas of Pune, the “Peth" areas as they are called, it was like preaching to the converted. “Traditionally, Maharashtrians are conservative and use their resources very carefully, so many of them anyway were used to cloth bags. It is only in the newer areas, the IT (information technology) and outsourcing company hubs of Koregaon Park and Kalyani Nagar, that we had to push the campaign."

Somewhere along the line we got carried away by plastic and began stuffing our homes with it. Now, with a generous nudge from the West which has made environment consciousness trendy, we are back to realizing the wisdom of our forefathers. Which is great, albeit amusing and ironical. So, we have campaigns in various parts of the country pushing customers to use cloth bags. The Earth Organisation in Hyderabad, the Indian chapter of an international environmental NGO, is run by a bunch of earnest students who began a campaign called Green Bag Movement in the city. At the southern tip of the country, in Kanyakumari, a dynamic district collector galvanized vegetable vendors, shop owners, panchayats and the administration to make Kanyakumari completely plastic bag-free and script a heartening case study in public-private partnership.

There is enough reason to buy a couple of smart, reusable cloth bags and keep them in the car to be used for shopping and never ask for a plastic bag from the store. If you need more reason to do this, it is that you can get some really beautiful bags that you can find online.

Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com

Also Read | Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns

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