With 116 million residents, the population of the Indian state of Maharashtra is almost as large as Japan. So the news that the state government has decided to ban all single-use plastic is hugely significant.

The wide-ranging ban includes virtually all types of plastic bag, disposable cutlery, cups and dishes, as well as plastic containers and packaging. The state’s Environment Department is also encouraging people to recycle bottles and milk bags through a buy-back scheme.

The order was issued in March and gave those in possession of any non-exempt plastic a month to comply with the new regulations. Anyone caught with plastic after this time could be forced to pay a fine, and those who regularly break the rules could even face prison.

As the Indian Express reports, there are some exceptions to the ban, such as plastic bags and plastic packaging used for medicines, compostable plastic bags or material used for plant nurseries, horticulture, agriculture and handling of solid waste.

Maharashtra has moved to ban all single-use plastics
Image: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

However, plastic manufacturers are challenging the ban in court, saying that it lacked rational thinking. They've also argued that a ban will not encourage recycling.

Speaking in the Economic Times, Neemit Punamiya, general secretary at the Plastic Bag Manufacturers’ Association of India, said: “These plastics are not going to be recycled, and nobody will be collecting them. Will these not harm the environment?”

Separate reports also suggest the ban could put thousands of people out of work. This elicited a response from the Maharashtra Chamber of Commerce, which called for packaging materials to also be exempt until “alternatives are identified and made available.”

Countries move to ban plastics

Despite such opposition, banning single-use plastics is becoming increasingly common as policymakers aim to prevent the degradation of natural habitats and destruction of wildlife, particularly in the oceans and seas.

Every minute, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean, according to estimates in a 2016 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum. The report predicts that by 2050, all the plastic in the ocean would weigh more than all the fish.

Image: UN Environment

Last year, Costa Rica announced plans to ban all single-use plastics by 2021, with the government offering incentives to businesses, as well as investing in research focused on alternatives to single-use plastics to achieve its goal.

Scotland also made a similar announcement in January, in a move designed to dramatically cut the country’s marine plastic pollution.

And in April, the UK announced that cotton buds, drinking straws and various single-use plastics could be banned from sale in England from 2019, as part of a Commonwealth-led campaign to stop the pollution of the world’s oceans and waterways.

UK environment secretary Michael Gove said: “When it comes to our seas and oceans, the challenge is global, so the answer must be too.”