Policy Plunge

Our Never-Ending Plastic Problem: Why Odisha’s Jute Move Offers Hope

Odisha’s move to procure smaller jute bags marks a significant departure from the past. It is likely to wean away a sizeable section from using plastic bags readily available across shop counters

Governments – be at the Centre or the states – float tenders all the time for procuring materials and executing projects that it deems necessary. That being the case, the tender floated by the Odisha government this October was also routine.

Yet, the Odisha tender for 2 crore jute shopping bags worth Rs 240 crore has triggered extraordinary excitement with many hailing it as a pathbreaking initiative that, besides benefiting India’s legacy jute industry, can help in cleaning up the environment substantially by providing a much-needed alternative to hazardous plastic bags.

The idea behind the Odisha push for procuring jute carry bags is truly noble. To be used for distributing 10kg and 20kg of food grains by the state through government agencies, the belief is that consumers – on getting the more-handy jute bags – will continue to use them for their regular shopping needs since they are reusable.

Odisha’s move to procure smaller jute bags for carrying lesser weights also marks a significant departure from the past. It is not the first time that a state is tendering for the procurement of jute carry bags. There have been occasions earlier, though not too many, when states have ordered for such bags. But the current Odisha tender is remarkably substantive both in numbers and value, and what it would expectedly do is that the carry bags would reach the hands of very many ordinary consumers.

It is therefore likely that jute carry bags will become more popular and will henceforth be used by ordinary people for regular use. More importantly, it would mean weaning away a sizeable section of the population from using plastic bags that are readily available across shop counters, but invariably exacts a high environmental cost.

That the non-degradable plastic bags are a nuisance is an accepted fact. Though used once or twice before being discarded, they take inordinately long – often hundreds of years – to degrade. The result is an environmental nightmare that India together with the rest of the world is reeling under.

The situation has only gone from bad to worse, despite India banning the use of 19 items of single-use plastic – from cups, plates, and straws – last year. A ban on the use of plastic bags of less than 120 microns that came into effect late last year has also not helped much with plastic pollution continuing to balloon into a problem of gigantic proportions.

The scale of such pollution is frightening. India produces nearly 3.47 million tonnes of plastic waste per annum with the per capita waste growing from 700 grams to 2.5 kg over the last five years. Though currently lagging the US, which uses plastic 2.7 times more than India, the gap is narrowing alarmingly. Estimates suggest that plastic usage in India will jump four times by 2050.

The consequences of mountains of plastic waste being generated are deadly with groundwater and soil meant for agriculture being contaminated. To burn them means igniting toxic fumes. Animals die on swallowing them while floods are inevitable with drainage systems being clogged with plastic.

The 2-crore jute carry bags ordered by Odisha will not alone suffice to reverse the terrifying fallout of plastic pollution. But what it does is it sets into motion a corrective measure, which if emulated by other states, can go a long way in addressing what is regarded as a persistent problem that has so long defied an easy solution.

For that matter, more environment-conscious global retailers such as Walmart, Ikea, and Tesco have already taken steps to phase out the use of plastic bags from many western countries they operate in. They are using jute carry bags instead, sourcing part of their supplies from India whose export of jute bags touched a respectable USD 120 million in 2022-23.

The market for jute carry bags in India, though, remains miniscule in comparison to that of plastic packaging which is estimated to be around US$ 21.12 billion. Obviously, carry bags made of jute – considered to be a golden fibre – have a lot of ground yet to be covered.

Besides environmental reasons, a greater focus on the use of jute carry bags can also do a world of good for India’s jute industry that is currently struggling in the face of under-utilised capacity, endangering the livelihoods of some 4 million jute farmers and a few more million of jute mill workers, traders and others associated with the trade.

With the current demand for jute bags falling short of 40 lakh bales capacity of jute mills mostly concentrated in eastern parts of India, there has been quite a bit of disquiet that has swept jute-growing areas of the country this season.

Jute mills have had to cut down on both production and procurement. It has meant jute farmers are unable to sell their stock at remunerative prices. Incurring heavy losses, they have staged noisy demonstrations and are now threatening to altogether stop growing jute from next year.

Tens of thousands of jute mill workers also face an uncertain future since the mills do not require them to work as many hours as they normally would have.

As is the case often, plastic here too is the villain. Government rules under the Jute Packaging Materials Act of 1987 mandates food grains industries to compulsorily procure jute bags for packaging their agricultural commodities. Among everything else, it stipulates that the sugar industry uses jute bags to package at least 20 per cent of its produce.

But unmindful of the environmental impact, the sugar industry continues to violate the act, preferring to use plastic bags since they are cheaper. Surprisingly, the non-compliance has never attracted any penalties as laid down by the act, and the costs of such willful violation are being borne by the environment and a jute industry that is saddled with over-capacity, triggering a chain of worrisome consequences.

Hopefully, the Odisha tender for jute carry bags is the beginning of the end for India’s over-reliance on plastics. None in the right frame of mind can dispute the need for a cleaner environment and the jute industry to regain its lost lustre.

(Ruben Banerjee is Director at Centre for Digital Economy Policy Research. Views expressed are personal)

This is a free story, Feel free to share.