• Karun Gupta

Banning Single-Use Plastics: Is This The Nudge We Need?

The Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi in his speech on 15th August this year stressed the need to phase out single use plastics, as a means to protect the environment. Single use plastic, as the name suggests, are plastic items which are usually used only once before being disposed of, such as straws, plastic bags, coffee stirrers, soda & water bottles, majority of the food packaging materials, etc. Is a ban a good idea, though? Is it even practically enforceable in a country that is one of the world’s largest consumers of this commodity? Are those innocent individuals who currently have a legitimate socio-economic interest in the commodity sufficiently insulated against having their livelihoods ripped apart in one go? We simply don’t know. However, the PM need not have looked far for an alternative response. It was buried in the pages of an Economic Survey that his own Ministry of Finance published a few months ago. Here’s how single-use plastics are set to become the next nightmare of Indian policymakers in the coming weeks.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in a 2018 report on single use plastics estimates that China is the world’s largest producer of plastic packaging waste, with close to 45 million metric tonnes of plastic waste generated each year. On a per person basis however, the US is tops the list, producing close to 46 kg per capita waste annually.

India consumed close to 16.5 million tonnes of plastic in 2017-18 alone, as per Plastindia Foundation. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, a trade group, estimates that close to 43% of total plastic consumed in India falls in the single-use category. Further, over 90% of the total plastic waste in oceans flows from rivers in Asia. Among Asian rivers, Ganga and Indus are well-known for the excessive amounts of waste they carry.

These toxic conditions are prevalent despite legal sanction in the form of ‘Plastic Waste Management Rules.’ This is largely because state governments, empowered to enforce these rules have neglected to do so. Except Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, West Bengal and the Union Territory of Puducherry, none of the states/UT’s in India have even filed their mandatory submissions to the Central Pollution Control Board.

While banning or imposing penalties for using single use plastic might be an easy solution to address the issue of plastic waste in India it is important that policy makers come up with innovative ideas which actually make people to not use plastics and to see them in a negative light along with banning or imposing penalties or bringing in a legislation to reduce usage of plastic.

Nudge & Plastic

In behavioural economics, Nudge is a theory advocating use of positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to influence behaviour and decision making of groups or individuals. It was popularised by the Nobel Prize winning economist Richard Thaler and Harvard Law School Professor Cass Sunstein. They argued that the success of the nudge theory lay in framing an environment which allowed for fostering desirable practices through social persuasion, rather than Executive fiat. Keeping this in mind, the government could further a number of ideas. A lot of it has been happening for decades already. Consider for instance, the positively framed rhetoric around taxation as a means to further the nation’s development. Specifically in India, the GiveitUp Campaign started by this government for voluntary renunciation of LPG subsidy is one of the most successful examples of the Nudge Effect. At the same time, other programs like Swacch Bharat (Clean India) have only shown limited success, suggesting perhaps the need for accompanying measures such as the development of a comprehensive waste disposal system. Similarly, for nudge theory to have some kind of effect on single use plastics, a very graphic awareness campaign on its most harmful effects is necessary. This would include, highlighting the damage to human and animal health at a level atleast consistent with that of the anti-tobacco campaigns.

A second, perhaps more tangible way of using the Nudge theory would involve an effective tax on single-use plastics. For instance, a recent survey demonstrated a statistically significant correlation between charging bags at malls and supermarkets, and the propensity of people to carry their own bags. This, in effect, allowed for greater re-use of previously existing stock of plastic bags in the environment. However, shopping bags are one use-case for single use plastics and a lot of other items (straws, lids on beverage containers, etc.) do not have readily available or re-useable alternatives.

Yet, there are advantages to using Nudge Theory instead of an outright ban. First, it reduces the backlash from corporate organisations over any losses that an outright ban might bring. Second, subtlety in policymaking is a well-recognised tool of adjusting long term behavioural patterns. It tends to make people more responsive to alter behaviour, compared to a knee-jerk step.

This is where we return to the 2019-20 Economic Survey, which dedicates an entire chapter to the Nudge Theory – albeit, in a different context. The PM’s pet project from his first term, the NITI Aayog has been mulling over setting up ‘Nudge Unit’ which, despite its creepy name, is slated to accomplish some impressive studies. Nudge Theory works primarily by exploiting cognitive biases and heuristics, which are the bedrock of human judgments. Perhaps the Economic Survey was attempting to use the Nudge Theory on the PM himself – that would make for a good exemplar of the Russel’s Paradox if it were true. Regardless of that aside, it is a well-known adage in India that a ‘one size fits all’ policy is not really workable. At the same time, the Nudge Theory, being a complex, abstract concept, is not probably the best tool for ‘nudging’ voters who are aching to see decisive action on any front. Perhaps that is what ‘nudged’ the PM to use the shock and awe of a ban in influencing behaviour. The last time he tried that – Google, “November 8, 2016 : India” – it broke the back of the Indian economy. For the sake of the planet, let’s hope this time the result isn’t the same.

Views expressed are solely those of the author.

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About the Author

Karun Gupta is a law graduate from Amity Law School, Delhi, Indraprastha University. He is a passionate speaker and an enthusiastic participant in Moots and Model United Nations Conferences. He loves research and has published a paper in a leading Law and Policy journal as well. Additionally, he works as a Student Editor at a reputed Law Journal as well. His interests lie in the field of public policy, constitutional law and international law.

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