Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Plastic-free India is a nudge away

It's a laudable goalbut a nudge approach would be more likely to succeed and less economically disruptive than a ban

The Indian plastic industry provides employment to over four million people in approximately 30,000 processing and manufacturing units. It was worth 1 trillion as of financial year (FY) 15 and is poised to grow at a steady 10.5% annually till FY20. At $7.64 billion, plastic exports accounted for nearly 3% of India’s total exports in FY15-16. So, is a blanket ban on plastic across the country economically and logistically viable?

On 27 March, the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change amended the Plastic Waste Management Rules (2016). According to the amendment, manufacturers, suppliers, and sellers of plastic (and plastic products) across the nation will now be required to phase out, over a period of two years, all such products which have no alternative use or are non-recyclable and non-energy recoverable.

This move was preceded by a state-wide ban in Maharashtra on the manufacture, usage, sale (wholesale and retail), distribution, storage and import of plastic bags and all disposable products made out of plastic.

What does a ban on plastic really mean to the average Indian citizen?

To the people employed in the industry, it could mean the shutdown of factories and potential job losses. To the consumer, it would mean choosing between alternatives that are either too expensive, impractical or not as easily available.

Just like the demonetization shock, the unrealistic timeline for the implementation of the plastic ban has caught all stakeholders unawares, making it extremely difficult to comply with. For any ban to be effective, the entire value chain needs to be looked at holistically, with robust systems in place at each level.

Weak enforcement has been the root cause of ineffectiveness for even the most well-thought-out policies in India.

The lack of proper planning and preparedness, in this case, makes efficacious execution even more challenging. What needs to be formulated is an end-to-end approach to eradicate the use and sale of plastic—one that covers the entire value chain, right from the manufacturer to the end consumer.

The implementation must begin at the back end, with incentives and tax benefits that could aid manufacturers in their gradual shift to alternatives for plastic.

However, the consumer will be the one who makes all the difference. This is where the government can nudge rather than coerce citizens to demand and use less plastic. A “nudge", as Nobel laureate Richard Thaler defines it, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.

The Behavioural Insights Team, a social purpose company jointly owned by the UK government, undertook a similar challenge, using nudges to increase tax compliance by sending out variants of behaviourally informed letters to the citizens of Guatemala. The results showed that not only did behavioural prompts significantly increase the number of tax declarations, but also that the framing of certain letters affected payment.

In this case, “normative social influence" was the most commonly detected bias, which could similarly be leveraged to nudge Indian citizens away from plastic. This bias taps into people’s intrinsic urge to conform and be liked by those around them. For instance, local authorities could send out letters saying, “90% of the residents in your locality have switched to alternatives to plastic. Do you want to be part of the 10% that has not?"

The plastic bag has become so ubiquitous and indispensable to the consumer that we expect the groceries we buy to be put in one.

Breaking this habit will require nudges that positively reinforce the practice of not using plastic altogether. One way of doing this would be to give discounts to customers who bring their own bags, or reward points for not requesting a plastic bag—as opposed to fining, penalizing, or charging high prices.

Another nudge, which has been extremely successful globally in donation scenarios, is the “opt-out model". Here, customers would by default be considered as opted-in for non-plastic items, forcing them to manually opt-out to choose otherwise.Having said all this, the depth and extent of the plastic problem globally is all but boundless. In 2025, it is estimated that the annual input of plastic waste from land to ocean will be over 16 million metric tons—almost 100 bags of plastic per foot of coastline in the world.

The UN joint group of experts on the scientific aspects of marine pollution estimated that 60-95% of this marine pollution comes from land-based sources (primarily plastic), resulting in the death of 100,000 marine mammals annually, apart from killing millions of birds and fish. In this respect, India has indeed taken a step in the right direction, with 18 states and Union territories having imposed a complete ban on plastic. But what may turn this transformative initiative into a disaster could be the myopic view of the government in not realizing that a ban can only be a means to an end, and not the end itself.

Kartik Jaishankar is a management consultant at KPMG.

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