Unsustainable Sustainability

In recent times if you have visited a large retail store, you may have realized that your bills are getting heavier by Rs 5 – 15/- – But then being paltry sums it may not be really bothering us.

This extra charge is towards the plastic bags and is line with the step taken by the government to reduce usage of plastic bags. This is a well intended but as usual missing the mark kind of hasty policy decision. Is it a mistake in policy making or are the policy makers, associations and lobbying agencies deliberately making a fool of us (once again)?

What is the attempted problem to be solved by this intervention?  Reduce usage of plastic carry bags, thereby reduce environmental degradation and becomre more green and sustainable in the process

BUT, what’s actually happening? Retailers tell you to pay for the plastic carry bags (which they used to pay for before)

  • In fact, the retailer and / or plastic carry bag manufacturer make more money on plastic as the plastic bag’s price charged to the consumer is anything but ostentatious
  • Almost all the consumers continue to use the plastic bags – now apart from using they are paying for it too..

GOOD Intention but BAD policy making! Why?

  • Lack of understanding of problem or poor problem definition
  • Lack of clear long-term visualization and planning

The intention to reduce the consumption of plastic thereby creating a cleaner and greener environment is a good one that is to be appreciated. The identification of a main point of usage: “volume of plastic carry bags provided at retail stores” was also done well. But the solution is what turned out to be pretty shortsighted! It looks like the energy that was put into arriving at the policy to curtail usage of plastic bags did not sustain till they could arrive at a correct solution.
If we really want to reduce consumption, we have to reduce it or replace it – definitely not increase its cost! Few alternatives that could have been considered:

  • Ask stores to refuse plastic carry bags when the number of items bought does not need one
  • Provide alternate to carry bags (jute, cloth, paper, etc). One can look at subsidising this cost for retailers and consumers. Infact this on proper implementation may help in upcoming of small scale setups
  • Help people carry items till exit and then transfer purchase into their vehicles.  Experience of unloading without bags may encourage the consumers to reach for bags as they leave their house. 

If we do not reduce consumption of plastic, its impact on sustainability is NOT going to change / reduce.

Paying more (just because we can afford it as a society) is not an alternative to using unsustainable and polluting materials.

Hope we learn to think through and make more useful and positively impactful policies.


4 thoughts on “Unsustainable Sustainability

  1. Hi Raj,

    Nice write-up! Though I have a little different take on this.
    I believe that the policy is well in right direction. And some positives I have noted are:
    1. People have started carrying their bags at-least in local/regular super store. Some people saving at least 2-3 plastic bags in a month. Considering even that they forget to carry it sometimes.
    2. People now try to accommodate more stuff in less carry bags. Saving at least 1 plastic bag a time.
    3. Even if people forget to carry bags from home, still at counter they sometimes feel that they could have easily carried bag. This is raising awareness. People have started thinking!

    These things are just few things I have noted. And even if it’s making a meager 1-2 bags savings every purchase… I believe it’s some good benefit, compounding the benefit when it comes to all the daily/super stores and the huge population in India. This might not be the optimal solution but I believe it is definitely a small right step in the right direction.

    This belief is even more reinforced when today I see small positive changes around me like even delivery boys, maids, etc. switching off fan when getting out of lifts. Totally unrelated, but yes, a validation that people (from all walk of life) are getting more conscious.

    Just a differing view-point.


    1. Thanks Rahul for your views. A good thought is one which raises multiple opinions and it is from these multiple opinions that intelligent policy making is a fall-out. Your last observation on the less educated also becoming aware of the importance of sustainability and conservation of resources is well received! I think this kind of awareness is a welcome change and i truly hope it happens in much larger numbers.

      But then I still feel there must be better ways to spend money on making people think green. Though i have suggested some alternatives (which also is being implemented in some stores) i feel we can catalyze this process. Today we are seeing a problem of ‘effectiveness’ Vs ‘efficiency’. As Peter Drucker said, “Doing the right thing is more important than doing things right.” and in India we have lots of examples of short-sighted policies made to handle the situation and then trying to derive maximum benefit from it! But i think policy can be made in much more far-sighted ways.

      There are two messages / learning from the above:

      1. Policy making is a tough job as it involves far-sighted thinking for the common good (in this case society)
      2. Sustainability needs to be achieved through more sustainable means (don’t think we can always pay for our mistakes!)

      All this is to urge ourselves to see if this is the most optimal solution we could have thought of? Personally i think we can and need to much more. I believe we can do more and i truly hope we will. Hope this adds to our discussion.

      Thanks for taking the discussion forward!

  2. I agree with Silent Saint. The government was able to launch an awareness campaign without having to spend much money on it’s own. This is easy to implement and monitor without much involvement from government. They also have you and me talking about plastic bags and pollution here, which means their awareness building plan is working :).

    Also, replacing it with alternatives like paper or jute bags is probably not addressing the problem we are trying to tackle which is two fold i) Awareness on pollution and ii) voluntary reduction of consumption.

    The second point is quite important. Man today has material needs that pollute and are wasteful that did not exist a few years back. Reducing our carbon foot print is much easier if we STOP or REDUCE this waste rather than find alternative things to waste.

    I do not think that irresponsible use of paper/jute bags and felling trees or growing jute crops for this solves the problem. It may create other problems that we may find equally hard to solve.

    To your point on “Paying more (just because we can afford it as a society) …” I think a vast majority of India is not that consumerist yet. I think a large number of people , including myself, will try to use lesser bags on a trip to the store or take bags with us on our next visit. It builds a culture of responsibility among all citizens rather than leave it with the government or with shops through regulation. And this culture of responsibility goes outside of the shop as well as we will try to reuse plastic bags more or think about pollution more and be conservative in our use of other goods thus making us contribute even less to the carbon footprint.

    1. Thanks Sanjeev for your interesting thoughts. I have just replied to silent saint’s comment. You may want to have a look at that as well.

      It is important to hear differing views and take them constructively so that the ideas on the topic will emerge better and improved. I’m glad that your views have given me additional understanding. The reason for raising this point through the blog was to ask ourselves if our approach to Policy making is solid enough, especially considering the fact that we have eminent thinkers as a nation.

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