Young ragpickers collect clothes, coins, wooden materials and other usable items cluttered at the bank of Jawahar Lal Nehru lake...epa04391999 Young ragpickers collect clothes, coins, wooden materials and other usable items cluttered at the bank of the Jawahar Lal Nehru lake after the immersion of Lord Ganesh idols to mark the end of the Ganesh festival, in Bhopal, India, 09 September 2014. Despite of the warning of the district administration not to immerse idols in the lake to protect the environment, hundreds of idols have been immersed by devotees, resulting in a huge pollution of the lakes in India. EPA/SANHEEV GUPTA
Plastic pollution has become one of the biggest environmental problems in the country, where garbage collection is patchy or nonexistent © EPA

Businesses across India are bracing for a ban on single-use plastics as prime minister Narendra Modi’s government adopts tougher measures to tackle the country’s pollution crisis.

The nationwide ban — the details of which are being finalised by the government — is expected to be announced on October 2, the anniversary of the birth of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Mr Modi trailed the announcement during an Independence Day speech in August when he urged India to “free” itself from single-use plastic.

However, apprehension is growing ahead of the announcement — which is expected to include the prohibition of several items including plastic bags, cutlery and straws — that it will hit businesses at a time when the economy is slowing.

“The situation in India is so severe that the ban is really required,” said Sourabh Manuja, an environmental engineer at The Energy and Resources Institute.

However, Mr Manuja said he doubted whether the ban would be successfully implemented in the absence of alternative products to plastic. “It’s a very good development, but are we prepared? In some parts, India is very much addicted to plastic. We do have other solutions, but those are not cost effective.”

Plastic pollution has become one of the biggest environmental challenges in the country, where garbage collection is largely the domain of the informal sector. India’s streets are littered with trash. Out of the 10 rivers that carry more than 90 per cent of plastic waste to oceans, three are in India, according to the UN.

While few dispute the need to reduce plastic pollution, the fear is that the ban will be implemented suddenly and without adequate preparation.

Facing mounting pressure to reform, companies in India are working to address plastic pollution. Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Bisleri, which sells soft drinks and bottled water, announced last week that they would form a joint venture to set up a packaging waste management venture.

Amazon is “aggressively working to eliminate single use plastic” in its packaging by June 2020, said an Amazon India spokesperson. Rival ecommerce firm Flipkart said it had reduced single use plastic by 25 per cent over the past year.

Hindustan Unilever, which sells everything from soaps to tea in India, in 2018 arranged for collection and “environment-friendly disposal of more than 20,000 tons of plastic laminate waste” in more than 20 cities, with plans to expand the programme. The company did not comment on the government’s plans to institute a ban.

“Everyone in the field is worried. There is no clear definition about anything,” said Jigish Doshi, president of the Plastindia Foundation, a body representing plastic industry associations. “We are with the government, but we want this to be a win-win situation.”

The ban would come into effect at the beginning of India’s festive season when hundreds of millions of people are celebrating Diwali, one of the major Hindu festivals, potentially putting further stress on companies at a time when they are grappling with an economic slowdown. India’s economic growth grew at its weakest pace in six years between April and June.

“Many people will starve to death,” said Mohammed Jehangir Alam, a 40-year-old who picks up plastic garbage in New Delhi and sells it to recycling plants for a living. “There’s no other work we can do. ”

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