Major stores, including the South African-born Spar superstore across from the hotel where I was staying, are selling cloth bags for 25 rupees (R5).
Picture: Yogin Devan
Major stores, including the South African-born Spar superstore across from the hotel where I was staying, are selling cloth bags for 25 rupees (R5). Picture: Yogin Devan
Opinion - MY sojourn in Chennai for my annual super dose of Madras filter coffee, cultural concerts and credit card challenges was greeted by a ban on plastic products.

The birth of the new year saw Chennai Corporation officials conducting searches in shops across the city and confiscating single-use plastic items such as shopping bags, cups and plates.

While many residents voluntarily surrendered banned plastic items at designated depots, Chennai Corporation has vowed to continue with its plastic ban awareness programmes and has requested citizens to switch to eco-friendly alternatives such as cloth bags, paper cups and straws.

Moving through the crowded streets of Chennai on Wednesday, the ban on single-use plastic shopping bags was clearly evident. Shoppers hunting for New Year’s bargains and those making purchases for the upcoming Pongal harvest festival carried cloth and paper bags.

Major stores, including the South African-born Spar superstore across from the hotel where I was staying, are selling cloth bags for 25 rupees (R5). There is currently no charge for large, brown grocery paper bags.

The ban on certain popularly used plastic items follows Tamil Nadu chief minister Edapaadi Palaniswami’s call on International Environment Day (June 5 last year) for a plastic-free Tamil Nadu.

A similar effort by the previous chief minister, Jayaram Jayalalitha, in May 2002 was ineffective.

The jobs of at least 300000 workers in the plastic manufacturing industry have been affected by the latest ban, which has seen an increase in the use of cloth and paper bags and aluminium foil containers for liquid products.

To cope with the sudden demand, prisoners are being used to manufacture cloth shopping bags.

Chennai generates 430tons of plastic waste each day - at least 10% of total solid waste generated by the city. Health and environmental benefits have been cited as the fruits of banning plastics. The ban on non-biodegradable plastic products will reduce water logging and reduce diseases such as dengue and malaria.

Almost two decades ago, then South African environment minister Valli Moosa banned single-use plastic shopping bags. However, his efforts as a champion of greenies largely failed.

Single-use plastics such as shopping bags, sweet wrappers, plastic cutlery, coffee cup lids and straws continue to be easily blown around in the wind.

The ubiquitous “Checkers”, as the masses refer to plastic shopping bags, is regarded as South Africa’s national flower: fences throughout the countryside are dotted with used bags which get stuck on the razor wire.

In Chennai, roadside food vendors have resorted to using banana leaves and newspaper to serve takeaway food. Those selling idli and dosa batter have asked their regular customers to bring their own vessels.

One vendor said: “We used banana leaves previously but people did not prefer them as they would leak. How do we parcel liquid items such as sambar and rasam that cannot be packed in banana leaves.

“We cannot afford aluminium foil containers. Unless a suitable affordable alternative is found, the government should allow the use of plastic pouches for liquids.”

A tea stall owner, Vijay Rathnavel, said big outlets could charge customers for the extra non-plastic packaging. “But we cannot charge extra. We sell food for 20 rupees. If we charge them more, they will stop coming to us.”

Gopalan Venkatesh, a coconut water seller, said he used to buy 500 plastic straws for 25 rupees. “But the cost of 50 paper straws in the wholesale market is now 50 rupees. How can we afford it?” he said.

Talking about the retro use of banana leaves to wrap food in, Chennai reminded me of my father relating his experiences as a schoolboy. Being a poor market gardener’s son, he could afford nothing more suitable than a banana leaf in which to wrap his school lunch.

As a pupil at Sastri College in the late 1930s, my father would travel by train from Cavendish railway station into the city. He would boast that while his fellow pupils had to contend with cold food packed in fancy lunchboxes, his simple meal of vegetable curry and rice would still be piping hot at lunchtime - all because it had been wrapped in a banana leaf.

When I was a schoolboy, my mother would enclose my tinned fish or egg chutney sandwiches in a wax paper which was again wrapped in newspaper. A dear school mate from five decades ago, Parmanand Govender, and I recently reminisced how the newspaper ink would be imprinted on the bread if no wax paper was used.

“Aluminium foil was not even known to us those days. Even bread bought from the shop was a luxury for many of us who hailed from poor families. Hence, we took roti to school,” he recalled.

I clearly remember the pre- plastic shopping bag era when I would accompany my mother to the “top market” in Victoria Street, Durban, for grocery shopping.

Rice, sugar, dhall, beans, salt, dry fish and other similar products would be weighed on a manual scale and wrapped in newspaper. The parcel would be tied with a piece of jute twine which hung down from a roll high up in the ceiling.

Up until the late 1960s, there was no such thing as serving meals on paper plates at weddings. You ate tasty meals cooked on open fire off banana leaves - and with your fingers.

How lasting will the plastic ban be in Tamil Nadu? We have all heard of the phrase: “An idea is only as good as its execution.”

While the move to ban single-use plastic products in a southern India state is a decisive step in expressing commitment to the environmental cause, this must be accompanied by altering behaviour of stakeholders, which is key to developing sustainable policies.

Interventions targeting economic or social change must be followed by a majority of the population as the morally right decision to make as a citizen - and not out of fear of the criminal justice system.

Also, ensuing governments in Tamil Nadu must impose the current ban with the same zeal and enthusiasm. Any relenting in enforcement to win votes will take the environmental cause much further back. This has been clearly evident in South Africa, where the majority of people lack environmental accountability because of Pretoria’s lethargy on the plastic ban issue.

Hence plastic pollution is still widely prevalent. While we increasingly turn to items made of plastic for convenience, sewer lines are being clogged and the oceans are being choked.

Tamil Nadu has shown India, and the rest of the world, the way. Getting rid of plastic is not impossible. All that is needed is the will. And cloth and paper bags.

* Devan is a media consultant and social commentator. Share your thoughts with him on: [email protected]