Apr 14, 2016

The plastic ban in Bengaluru won’t work unless e-commerce companies believe in it

More than half of Bengaluru’s daily garbage haul of 4,000 tonnes, including 1,050 tonnes of plastic, ends up in landfills -- and online shopping and feeding the beast.

BYShrabonti Bagchi

It started the day I ran out of shampoo in the middle of a busy week. I was too lazy to walk down to the nearest convenience store (in all fairness, it wasn’t that near), so I ordered a bottle of shampoo on Amazon and paid extra for one-day delivery.
The package arrived promptly the next morning, in what looked like a box big enough to hold enough shampoo bottles to wash the entire neighbourhood’s hair. I sliced it open and plucked out a 200 ml shampoo bottle. It was nestled in a sheet of bubble wrap long enough to pack a microwave in.
Even though my apartment practices waste segregation and recycling, I felt guilty. I should have walked down to the store, I told myself. It all seemed so wasteful.
GarbageOnce I started, I couldn’t stop seeing it everywhere. The vegetables I ordered on BigBasket came packed in individual plastic bags. The lunch I ordered from FreshMenu came in a plastic box along with plastic spoons and forks. The single black shirt I ordered from Myntra was wrapped in bubble wrap and stuffed into multiple plastic envelopes. A smartphone from Amazon came in a small box inside a huge box stuffed with at least three types of plastic cushioning material and Thermocol padding; the layers coming off, one after the other, like Matryoshka dolls to reveal the precious cargo.
Is this the price we are paying for convenience? Bangalore is already notorious as the city that can’t manage its trash. Pictures of villagers protesting at landfills near their homes and of piles of steaming waste on the worlds have been splashed across newspapers and the internet.
More than half of Bengaluru’s daily garbage haul of 4,000 tonnes, including 1,050 tonnes of plastic, ends up in landfills — and online shopping is feeding the beast.
The rules that are changing the game

Thankfully, not all of us turn a blind eye. Around the time that I became aware of the enormous amounts of packaging waste being generated by e-commerce deliveries, a movement was gathering steam in Bengaluru. Concerned citizens — mostly women — were organising themselves into groups to put pressure on the BBMP, Bengaluru’s municipal corporation, to amend and enforce the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2000. Specifically, they were demanding a complete ban on all plastic packaging material and bags — not just those below 40 microns — at retail points of sale, from the big malls and supermarkets to mom-and-pop grocery stores.
Bigbasket PackagingIn March 2016, the BBMP issued a draft notification banning a comprehensive list of plastic items — including bags above 40 microns of thickness, thermocol, non-woven polypropylene, multi-layered pouches (aluminium and plastic), flex boards, styrofoam and plastic beads. The state Cabinet approved it on March 3, 2016, and the ban came into effect from March 14. Interestingly, Karnataka’s rules are far more stringent than the Union government’s new plastic waste management rules, which were also notified in March 2016.
And that is why it’s unfortunate that while you can’t get your groceries packed in plastic bags at physical stores in neighbourhoods where citizens and BBMP have ensured enforcement (HSR Layout, Koramangala, Sarjapur Road-Bellandur, Yelahanka, Sanjaynagar, Basavanagar), you still have large amounts of plastic waste being generated thanks to online shopping. Ironically, some of these areas are home to high-income, tech-savvy families and individuals, and see some of the highest volumes of e-commerce deliveries in Bangalore.
“We have been talking to e-commerce companies like Flipkart, Big Basket, PepperFry, Amazon, and Grofers to try and get them to comply with the plastic ban. We know they cannot change their packaging norms overnight, but we want to start a dialogue with them and share ideas,” said Malini Parmar, one of the founders of the Bangalore Eco Team Facebook group, which has created an impressive volunteer-led movement to enforce the plastic ban in Bengaluru’s Sarjapur Road area. Group volunteers have been talking to area managers of several e-commerce companies, and others have been flooding their inboxes with emails and posting on their social media pages, Malini said. “But I can’t say that it has really worked well so far. They have promised to ‘look into it.’”
When you have worked hard to eliminate or drastically reduce plastic in your area, it is galling to see e-commerce companies getting away with sending it into your home. Not all apartment complexes and individual homes segregate and recycle, and a lot of this packaging material ends up in dumps. The stuff that can be recycled is segregated and taken away by waste-pickers, and the rest is often burnt, releasing harmful dioxins into the air.
Also, less and less plastic is being picked up by waste-pickers for recycling. The reason for that, in one word, is oil. As crude oil prices fall, virgin (never-used-before) plastic also becomes cheaper, which means there is less incentive for waste-pickers to sell recycled plastic. The supply chain of recycled plastic has slowed down because of the falling rates of virgin plastic, and that’s the reason you will see more dumps being set on fire, belching black smoke into the air.
“The problem is that my young daughter Lila, an Olympic gymnastics aspirant, has to breathe these plastics being burnt, even though she carries her cutlery with her when eating out. She is paying the price as she dutifully falls sick every time there is large scale plastic burning in the neighbourhood. Are we willing to sacrifice our children’s aspirations for the convenience of fast food and free home delivery?” asks Parmar.
Seema Sharma, another member of Kasa Muktha Bellandur, a citizen’s collective for sustainable practices, wrote on the group’s Facebook page: “I have been sending emails to online retailers Big Basket, ZopNow Grofers etc to stop using and selling plastic disposable. I am glad to say that ZopNow rep called and ensure that they are surely going to do that. They are eliminating plastic bags and also look into selling these disposables from their portal. This is least all of us can do. Just send emails to these retailers and ask them to stop using and selling one time use non essential plastic and add more alternative options.”
Another member, Babita Saxena, wrote: “We went to the Big Basket warehouse in Mahadevpura on Wednesday. We could only meet the regional head of HR. Explained everything to him and left the Gazetted notification with him and a request for a meeting with the big guys. As of now no response or assurance from their side.”
BigBasket did not respond to our request for comment despite multiple attempts.
So what can one do?

Solutions for ecommerceI met FreshMenu founder Rashmi Daga at a Coffee Day outlet in Koramangala to talk about the challenges e-commerce companies face in reducing packaging, and how her company is gearing up for the challenge. “Gravies. They are our biggest hurdle,” says Daga. “When you have promised to deliver hot, fresh food to your customers, and when most of that food contains gravy, because Indians hate dry food, it is very difficult to completely do away with plastic containers.”
Fresh Menu has experimented with using biodegradable materials, such as corn starch containers, but they are not 100% efficient and are way more expensive. The volumes are large: the company needs 5 to 10 lakh boxes a month. It also distributes 20,000 spoon-and-fork sets every day — one with every meal ordered — and Daga says they “encourage users to give these back if they don’t need it.” But instead of depending on that, FreshMenu has decided to move to biodegradable corn starch cutlery. Daga says orders have already been placed, even though these cost ₹4 per set — exactly twice as much as the plastic stuff.
“At some point, businesses will have to start charging customers for this stuff,” says Daga.
Businesses face their own unique challenges, mostly to do with the fact that if customers are not satisfied with the quality of the products they receive, they will return it, and if this happens consistently, the image and branding of the company take a massive hit. A spokesperson from E-Kart, Flipkart’s logistics arm, wrote this in response to an to an email questionnaire sent by FactorDaily: “Some of the challenges that a company faces that affects packaging is the broken transport system in India. There is lack of dedicated vehicles that leads to product damages and other losses in transit. The product damages are fixed to an extent using the right kind of packaging with optimal cost, however not fully!”
Flipkart delivers more than 80 lakh shipments a month, according to a statement that the company released in February. That’s over 2.5 lakh shipments a day. That is an enormous amount of packaging material going into the system every day — and even though Flipkart claims it is recyclable, it’s up to the individual consumer to actually recycle and reuse. And there is just not enough awareness or will to do so, nor is there any incentivisation from the company, even though it has taken some steps in the right direction. “We have developed eco-friendly packaging, such as special cartons made of recycled paper, without compromising on box compression strength and other in-transit properties. We are also using the Recycle-Reduce-Reuse logo on some of our shipments,” the E-Kart spokesperson wrote.
This shows that Flipkart is at least thinking about the problem. But is it enough? In countries where e-commerce packaging waste has come heavily under the scanner, companies have created incentive schemes to customers to take back packaging materials or have them pay extra for “extra safe” packaging. The E-Kart spokesperson admitted that “customised packaging is not an option as of now. We only do standard packaging except for gift wrapping.”
The people at Saahas Zero Waste Solutions believe that when you pay for something, you care about where it ends up. The Saahas guys call themselves “takeback specialists” — they run three garbage segregating units in Bangalore called Kasa Rasa, where their 100-plus sorters sift through 20 tonnes of garbage every day to retrieve recyclable paper and plastic materials and then use it to create upcycled products.
Saahas believes in something called EPR or Extended Product Responsibility. “Most people have this don’t-see-don’t-talk attitude towards garbage. As long as it’s not in my backyard, I don’t care what happens to it,” says Arun Mangesh, the marketing and communications head at Saahas. “This extends to most companies in India, including e-commerce players, who have to understand that they cannot just create waste. They have to take charge of it and pay to have it taken care of in a sustainable manner,” he says.

“Most people have this don’t-see-don’t-talk attitude towards garbage. As long as it’s not in my backyard, I don’t care what happens to it,” says Arun Mangesh, the marketing and communications head at Saahas.

Wilma Rodrigues, founder and CEO of Saahas, believes companies must start charging for packaging, because when you add value to “waste”, the market takes over. It does not remain “waste” anymore but becomes something valuable.
Suggestions for the likes of BigBasket and Flipkart from the folks at Saahas: Stop using plastic unless absolutely essential. Use paper bags for fruits and vegetables. Have a point-based system to incentivise customers to return packaging and display this messaging prominently on your web and app platforms. When you deliver a large number of products at a single location — such as Bengaluru’s massive techparks or apartment complexes — reduce the amount of packaging for each product as it is being delivered hand to hand anyway. Work actively on reducing packaging instead of putting it way down in your list of priorities. Instead of using several types of material to pack the same product, stick with one type to make sorting and recycling easier.
Finally — and this goes as much for e-commerce companies as us consumers — think about where that waste is coming from and where it is going. Don’t whine about the BBMP leaving garbage on the roads or burning it. You know who raised that stink in the first place? You did.

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Shrabonti Bagchi is a writer of FactorDaily.