Banned Single-Use Plastic Products Still Flooding Indian Markets: Study Reveals Implementation Challenges
One year following India’s ban on specific single-use plastic items, a recent study conducted by Toxics Link, titled “India’s Single-Use Plastic Ban,” has discovered the prevalent use of these prohibited plastic products in five major Indian cities – Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Guwahati, and Gwalior, notably in local stores and markets. Although certain single-use plastic products (SUPPs) were officially banned on July 1 last year, it seems that the enforcement of this ban remains largely ineffective. This evident violation casts serious doubt on India’s endeavours to reduce plastic pollution.
The worldwide production of plastic waste, totalling approximately 400 million tonnes annually, continues to pose a significant environmental challenge due to insufficient management capacity. At the core of this issue is the prevailing ‘take, make, use, and dispose’ model that characterizes the plastic economy, promoting the widespread use of SUPPs. This leads to the generation of vast quantities of non-biodegradable waste, often carelessly discarded and ultimately finding its way into landfills and oceans. Subsequently, this waste breaks down into micro- and nano-plastics, posing a grave threat to the entire ecosystem.
In an effort to address this problem, India implemented a ban on specific SUPPs nationwide from July 1, 2022, aiming to reduce the usage of products with low utility and high littering potential that harm the environment and public health. Nearly a year since the ban’s introduction, it is crucial to assess its effectiveness and understand the challenges in its implementation. This study sought to evaluate the ban’s implementation, analyse the availability of substitutes for SUPPs, and identify the obstacles to their adoption. The resulting report offers key recommendations to enhance compliance and achieve a substantial reduction in the use of SUPPs.
To evaluate the accessibility of SUPPs and their potential substitutes, surveys were conducted in five cities spanning different regions of India. Subsequently, interviews were conducted with relevant stakeholders to gain insights into the impediments hindering the transition to substitute products. The findings revealed that, of the five cities surveyed, Delhi exhibited the lowest level of compliance with the ban’s implementation, with banned SUPPs still accessible at 88% of the surveyed locations. In contrast, Bengaluru displayed the highest level of compliance, with SUPPs available at 55% of the surveyed points. Gwalior (84%), Mumbai (71%), and Guwahati (77%) also reported a substantial presence of SUPPs at the surveyed locations. This raises concerns as, nearly one year post-ban implementation, SUPPs continue to be available at more than half of the surveyed points in these five cities.
Though consumption of banned items has gone down, especially in branded sector, there is still large-scale use in many segments. The informal economy, largely, continues its SUPPs usage, especially plastic carry bags, cutlery, straws, etc. In-depth analysis of the collected data gives an insightful view and points out the SUPPs that have been affected by the ban and the ones that have suffered limited impact.
The most abundantly found SUPP in all cities was restricted carry bags (mainly plastic carry bags <120 microns); their average availability was as high as 64%. Similarly, SUPPs such as thermocol for decorations, balloon and earbuds with plastic sticks were widely available. This is highly disappointing as substitutes for these SUPPs are easily available in the market. On the positive note, use of plastic stirrers and plastic sticks in ice cream was not noted in any of the five surveyed cities. Another positive outcome is the reduction of plastic cutlery, straws, cups and plates in eating places.
The overall availability across cities for these SUPPs is below 30% while the availability of sustainable substitutes is higher. Another key point observed in the survey findings is availability of SUPPs and its correlation with location type. For example, street food (chaat) vendors, coconut sellers, vegetable vendors and small stalls in markets, weekly and wholesale markets do not comply with the ban in all five cities, but formal eating places, malls and metro stations mostly obey the ban. This probably indicates that ban compliance is driven by the economics and the degree of enforcement at a location; formal or branded locations that can afford substitutes and are monitored strongly under laws have to a large extent switched to substitutes. In comparison, a street vendor or a small shopkeeper are yet to switch to substitutes as they are weakly regulated and also because of the cost of substitutes. However, small, a price margin makes a substantial difference to them. Shopkeepers/ vendors also find the availability and their access to substitutes to be a challenge.
Another important factor that decides compliance appears to be consumer behaviour; many shopkeepers say that consumers demand SUPPs.
Regulatory agencies in one of surveyed state says that for the first year of the ban, the focus has been more on larger establishments and ensuring compliance there. Also, the attempt has also been to cut off supply. The issue of livelihood is also another factor to be considered, while being not so stringent in the informal economy, but the next phase is expected to focus on that. Another state agency points out the lack of economically feasible substitutes as a key factor.
Finally, the study presented recommendations based on the findings and stakeholder inputs. First, the enforcement and monitoring process needs to be stronger and uniform across locations. For this, the study suggests that, in addition to the regulatory agency increasing its vigilance, third monitoring could be helpful. Second, the study suggests that the availability of SUPPs can be reduced only when the supply of banned products is disrupted with effective monitoring at the manufacturing level. Regular checks are recommended at the manufacturing units.
Availability of economically and functionally feasible substitutes will need market-based policy tools to incentivise production and adoption. For instance, economic incentives should be provided to substitute manufacturers — raw materials for substitutes could be made tax free or subsidies added to make production cheaper. Additionally, training and skills needed for the incubation of substitute micro-enterprises should be conducted.
Last, stakeholder engagement should be fostered and inputs from all stakeholders regarding the bottlenecks should be incorporated in the implementation process. Since customers are one of the most important stakeholders, environmental education and regular campaigns should be used to increase awareness and reinforce ban-compliant consumer behaviour. The study proposes that the penalties collected while enforcing the ban should be used to conduct regular monitoring, awareness campaigns, skill development and distribution of substitutes to SUPPs.
Though malls and metro stations show strong adherence to the ban, the study finds that shopping markets, weekly markets, and wholesale markets have major enforcement gaps. Despite their controlled environments, plastic carry bags are also frequently used on railway platforms, bus depots, and tourist spots. Furthermore, despite the availability of viable alternatives, the continued presence of SUPPs in the food business, including restaurants, food stalls, and street food vendors in all cities, raises serious concern about the effectiveness of the product ban.
“Single-use plastics play a significant role in exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis, and the study’s findings highlight significant deficiencies in the ban’s enforcement in India, particularly within the informal economy. The unrestricted use and circulation of banned single-use plastics are alarming, and their open sale on e-commerce platforms is equally concerning,” remarked Priti Banthia Mahesh, Chief Programme Coordinator at Toxics Link. She emphasized, “While alternatives are accessible in the market, it is equally important to adopt a life cycle approach to assess these substitutes before their widespread adoption.”
In Delhi, one of the surveyed cities, significant usage of banned SUPPs has been noted during the study. In a shocking finding, the study reports that 100% of the surveyed vegetable shops, and markets, including wholesale and weekly, sweet shops, bus depots, and chaat shops in Delhi are providing restricted plastic carry bags, indicating its widespread usage and possible littering. Usage of plastic carry bags was very high in other points as well, including tourist spots and small restaurants. Disposable cups, straws, and plates, made of plastic, are available at 54%, 45%, and 43% of the points respectively, indicating a high volume of use. Thermocol for decorations, balloons, and earbuds with plastic sticks are available at almost all surveyed points in the city. The use of the banned products was seen in 100% of the food stalls and chaat vendors, coconut water sellers, grocery shops, markets, and bhandaras. Interestingly, SUPPs were absent in malls and ice cream parlours.
“It is important to recognise that while progress has been made, there is still a substantial journey ahead in curbing the prevalence of single-use plastic products in our cities. The varying levels of compliance across different locations and product types highlight the complexity of this challenge,” said Satish Sinha, Associate Director at Toxics Link. He adds, “Stakeholders must come together and build on the positive shifts observed while addressing the areas that require immediate intervention. Our goal is to cultivate a sustainable ecosystem that not only enriches our communities but also safeguards our planet.”
According to the survey data, SUPPs are still easily available across all five cities. Amongst the surveyed cities, Bengaluru is the most ban compliant with SUPPs in use at 55% survey points. Delhi is the least compliant city as 88% of survey points still provide SUPPs.
- The survey data points out that the outcome of the ban is different for different SUPPs. Restricted carry bags, mostly plastic bags (<120 microns), is the most commonly available banned item — found at 64% of the total survey points.
- Despite having substitutes in the market, products such as thermocol for decoration (74%), balloon and earbuds with plastic sticks (60% each) are also widely available.
- The survey did not record any use of plastic stirrers and plastic sticks in ice-cream parlours across all five cities.
- All other SUPPs are available in all cities.
- An overall reduction in the use of plastic cutlery, cups, plates and straws is visible across eating joints in all cities. The average availability in total survey points is below 30% for these SUPPs, while availability of substitutes to these products is higher than 30% in most cities. It is also encouraging to see that around 90% of survey points used substitutes to plastic plates in nearly all five cities. However, it is also disheartening to see that more than 50% of the survey points in Delhi still use plastic cups and cutlery.
- In the case of SUPPs such as plastic straws, cutlery and sometimes carry bags, users often drink/ eat straight from their cups and plates and shopkeepers hand out products without any carry bag. This is a positive shift that leads to a reduction in total waste generation.
- Higher percentages of coconut water sellers, juice shops, street food (chaat) and vegetable vendors and shops in markets are not ban compliant.
- Another commercial location that could be the potential source of SUPPs are party decoration shops. Most party decoration shops across all cities, except Bengaluru, continue to sell SUPPs.
- Compliance is higher in locations that are strictly regulated, such as malls and metro stations. Most religious spots in all five cities are also ban compliant.
Table: Availability of different SUPPs in surveyed cities
|Restricted carry bags||54%||64%||57%||69%||78%||64.4%|
|Plastic wrapping film||27%||47%||Not available||31%||8%||23%|
|Earbuds with plastic sticks||25%||90%||43%||40%||100%||60%|
|Candy with plastic stick||Not available||33%||67%||30%||17%||30%|
|Balloon with plastic sticks||22%||92%||100%||67%||20%||60%|
|Ice-cream with plastic stick||Not available||Not available||Not available||Not available||Not available||0%|
|Thermocol for decorations||Not available||100%||71%||100%||100%||74%|
|Plastic stirrers||Not available||Not available||Not available||Not available||Not available||0%|
|PVC banner (100 microns)||25%||60%||67%||Not Available||25%||35%|
|Plastic flags||Not available||Not available||Not available||100%||100%||40%|
*Source: Single-use plastic ban in India: A report by Toxics Link.
Crucial Approaches to enforce Ban
Enforcing a ban on single-use plastics poses a substantial challenge in India, a nation marked by diverse geographical, social, economic, and cultural landscapes. Research on a global scale underscores the necessity for a multifaceted approach when implementing such bans. Ideally, this approach should encompass a combination of legislative and non-legislative actions involving multiple stakeholders. While India’s ban on Single Use Plastic Products (SUPPs) represents an initial stride, the effectiveness of this ban hinges on several critical factors. Among them, the cost and accessibility of substitutes, public awareness and knowledge, and effective monitoring and enforcement take precedence. In the context of a diverse country like India, this endeavour becomes more arduous and requires a conscious and comprehensive strategy. Key strategies may revolve around the following considerations:
Effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms
The difference in compliance levels across different location types and different cities is indicative of the gaps in enforcement. It is also important to note that most recognised and large brands have made the shift as larger corporations with a great degree of public visibility are monitored more closely by the enforcement agencies and are also more sensitive to damage in reputation. In comparison, smaller businesses have limited financial capabilities to adapt to legislative changes, but also have lesser monitoring. This uneven monitoring and enforcement can lead to shift in the burden, and not really reduce the problem. To ensure good governance, enforcement, and monitoring, it is important to clearly distribute and define roles and responsibilities between local and national regulatory agencies. Sustained monitoring efforts are needed, as the users tend to go back to the convenient option the moment the enforcement weakens. It is also important to use punitive measures as the prosecution of offenders will help ensure compliance to the policy and act as a deterrent for others. User fines can also be a deterrent used to discourage consumers from asking for banned SUPPs. It is important for regulatory agencies at state and national levels to keep the public updated on the progress and benefits achieved, in order to continue building consensus and demonstrate accountability. Third party evaluation in July 2022, when the single-use plastic ban came into effect, there was a flurry of activities, including regular checks by most state agencies. With the months passing by, these checks have gone down due to a lack of resources with the enforcement agencies. But, as stated above, for the ban to work well, there is a need for sustained enforcement effort. In the absence of resources at state regulatory agencies, some of these could be outsourced and institutions like civil society organisations (CSOs) and consultancy groups could play an important role in monitoring ban compliance. In these cases, it will be necessary to also provide them with certain authority to take actions against violators. Additionally, academic institutions, researchers or CSOs could be also roped in to evaluate the ban at a regular interval, in order to understand challenges or changes on ground.
Control on manufacturing
Use is only possible when there is a regular supply. And it is clear from the study that most of the banned SUPPs are still available in the market and their supply has been uninterrupted. Several measures ought to be taken to check usage and monitor vendors and consumers. But it is absolutely necessary to crack down on the manufacture of the prohibited products. Regular and random checks at manufacturing units could help curb the production of these items.
Research and Development
The lack of alternatives has been identified as a crucial barrier by most stakeholders interviewed during this study. Experts in this field have also, since the beginning of the ban, stressed the importance of availability of feasible alternatives. Ecofriendly and fit-for-purpose alternatives should provide the same or better properties of the items that are being regulated. The study findings clearly highlight that the switch has been much easier where there are feasible (both economically as well as functionally) alternatives, like in the case of cutlery or plates. But the cost difference or functionality has been a question for some products; for example, in carry bags or straws. Therefore, there is a need for further research and development to bring in substitutes that can be adopted by various stakeholders.
Support to substitutes
The cost of substitutes is one major bottleneck, especially for smaller vendors or small users. If cheap and resistant alternatives are unavailable, the ban can negatively impact the poorest segments of the population. The uptake of affordable, eco-friendly, and fit-for-purpose alternatives can be facilitated through the introduction of economic incentives (including tax rebates, research and development funds, technology incubation support and public- 79 private partnerships). For example, certain materials used to manufacture alternatives, such as sugarcane, bagasse, bamboo, paper, or corn starch, can be made tax-free. To stimulate the substitute’s eco-system through creation of micro-enterprises, training could be organised to impart knowledge on new skill-sets related to production and promotion of alternatives. When promoting the use of substitutes, the agencies need to also consider their environmental and life cycle impact. Also, the study results have also shown use of compostable bags or other SUPPs. Currently, these materials end up getting mixed with other household waste. It is vital to consider the impact of mixing these with regular waste stream and whether a separate collection mechanism is required, as many of these may have a different composting need than wet waste.
Assessing the sustainability of existing substitutes
Some research studies have pointed out that many substitutes available in the markets might not be entirely eco-friendly when assessed under Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). For example, a study has pointed out that substitutes like paper straws may contain toxic chemicals like perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) which are detrimental to health. Therefore, proper research needs to be conducted to assess the sustainability and health impacts of substitutes before adopting or promoting them.
Expanding the scope
Stakeholders, particularly waste workers, have shared insights during informal discussions, highlighting the presence of non-banned single-use plastic in the waste stream. Many of these items lack recycling potential or are impractical to collect and recycle. This observation underscores the necessity to reconsider the list of banned items in the single-use plastics ban, extending its scope to encompass other low-value, high-impact SUPPs. Potential additions might include small sachets (e.g., for shampoo, ketchup), petite mineral water bottles, plastic wrapping on various products (such as cosmetics, notebooks, handwash, shampoo), cling film used on fruits and vegetables, and plastic film used in dishwasher products. Conducting a comprehensive study to identify such SUPPs and explore viable alternatives becomes imperative for future action.
Coupling bans with other policy tools
Bans can also effectively be coupled with economic instruments, like increasing taxes on materials used for problematic SUPPs, subsidies for switching to more sustainable alternatives and tax reductions on substitute materials or levies for products containing recycled materials.
Foster stakeholder engagement
The single use plastic ban in the country has affected a wide range of stakeholders from different economic and social background. Hence, to improve compliance, it is important to have a larger acceptance from the broadest range of stakeholders. Though there were some consultations held when the ban came into force, but one year down the line, it is important to revive these consultations to focus on the bottlenecks and the measures needed to improve compliance levels. And these deliberations should not be limited to large industry players, but also extend to MSME and informal groups who have been identified in this study as groups which are the large users at this point. Public consultation through online surveys could be another way of reaching out to consumers, not just for creating awareness but to also understand their reasons for shifting or not shifting to alternatives (like carry bags).
Behavioural change campaigns
Raising public awareness through environmental education is a key element when enforcing a ban like this. Evidence shows that resistance is likely to decrease if consumers are aware of the social, environmental, and economic impact. Knowledge helps individuals make informed decisions, and may encourage environmentally sustainable behaviour. Though there were numerous initiatives when the ban came into effect in July 2022, the visibility of such campaigns has since reduced. Also, the campaigns were more focused on creating awareness and not always prompting change in practice. For enhanced public acceptance and compliance with SUPP bans, behavioural change campaign, for different target audiences and economic groups need to be designed and put into action. Social and mass media can be used effectively. This needs to be a sustained effort, because changing mindsets and behaviour requires time. In addition to this, reusable bags can be distributed for free at the entrance of some location types, where the usage of plastic bags is high. Using the fund from the fines for an effort like this can be beneficial in changing people behaviour.
The usage of banned single use plastic products invites fines at present and it is important that due consideration is given to how the revenue from this economic instrument will be used. It will be useful if these funds are managed with transparency and utilised to make the ban more effective on ground.
This article is an extract of a report on ‘Single use plastic ban in India’ by Toxics Link. For the full report, please go to-
Toxics Link is an Indian environmental research and advocacy organization set up in 1996, engaged in disseminating information to help strengthen the campaign against toxics pollution, and to provide cleaner alternatives. They also work on ground in areas of municipal, hazardous and medical waste management and food safety among others.