Street vendors constitute approximately 2.5 per cent of the urban population and serve the everyday needs of more than 377 million Indians in urban India. Photo: iStock
Street vendors constitute approximately 2.5 per cent of the urban population and serve the everyday needs of more than 377 million Indians in urban India. Photo: iStock

Single-use plastic ban unfairly targets street vendors — but they have a solution for plastic pollution

Shift to a reusable system through public policy, stricter regulations across the entire plastics supply chain are key to enable just transition

Street vendors are an important part of our daily lives, bridging the gap between our needs and affordability. While the vendors are most visible during the festive season, our daily lives would be extremely different without access to these hardworking individuals. However, they are also unfairly blamed for the burgeoning plastic waste in the country.

Street vendors constitute approximately 2.5 per cent of the urban population and serve the everyday needs of more than 377 million Indians in urban India, according to the 2011 National Census report. They choose self-employment, preserving their dignity in a country grappling with high unemployment rates.  

Shaktiman Ghosh, general secretary of National Hawker Federation (NHF) said, “There are approx 40 million street vendors in India earning between Rs 500 and 10,000 per day. Even if we consider an average income of Rs 2,000 per street vendor, they generate a turnover of approximately Rs 8,000 crore per day.” 

Despite their enormous contributions, street vendors are accused of encroachment, littering, causing inconvenience and even traffic jams! They are vulnerable to evictions and lack social security. To make matters worse, they are subject to hostile and unjust policies, exemplified by the single use plastic (SUP) ban implemented on July 1, 2022.

In contrast, the SUP ban favours large businesses. Industry estimates state that the ban would affect only 2-3 per cent of the total plastic waste generated in the country. Related regulatory instruments, such as the extended producer responsibility and Goods and Services Tax, are complicated, lack transparency and are skewed in favour of businesses. 

The global plastic market is valued at around $609.01 billion as of 2022 and it is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 4 per cent from 2023 to 2030The plastic industry is poised to be the lifeline of the fossil fuel industry — an industry of which it was a mere offshoot and used its waste materials. 

Petrochemical companies and fast moving consumer goods companies drive the demand for fossil fuels and plastic packaging, respectively. The three sectors heavily influence both public policy and the narrative on plastics. 

India’s SUP ban only covers 19 items, categorised as disposable plastic foodware, plastic sticks, flags, sweet box covers, earbuds, PVC (synthetic plastic polymer) banners that are less than 100 microns in thickness and plastic carry bags (less than 120 microns thick). 

The ban on plastic foodware, such as plates, bowls, spoons, forks, straws and plastic carry bags directly impacts the livelihoods of street vendors and small retailers. Packaging items that are being marketed as alternatives to the banned items are still single-use plastics: Non-woven polypropylene, paper cups and plates with plastic lining and plastics marked as compostable and biodegradable. They can neither be composted with organic materials, like kitchen waste or recycled like paper, glass and metal. Instead, they contaminate other material streams and affect the recovery of materials.  

As waste and brand audits have revealed, most of the plastic litter comes from plastic packaging used by fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies. By not including multi-layered plastic packaging, the ban can be seen as providing a free pass to FMCGs to use a single-use plastic packaging format that has extremely high littering potential and high negative environmental impact. 

FMCGs include multinational companies, such as Unilever, Nestle, Coca Cola and Pepsi, as well as Indian companies, such as Britannia, Haldirams, Parle and various state-owned dairy companies, including Aavin, Nandini and Amul.  

To understand the ground reality and the struggles of street vendors to comply with the ban, I spoke with approximately 120 vendors in Delhi, Kolkata and Nagpur in June and July 2023. What the vendors shared was that while the ban could potentially reduce some single-use plastics, it has imposed a substantial financial burden on already economically vulnerable street vendors. 

For instance, the cost of a single use plastic plate is a third of the cost of a paper plate with plastic lining and a fourth of the cost of a leaf plate. They shared that they could obtain a plastic bag of 75 micron for Rs 0.10 and 120 micron for Rs 0.70 and a non woven polypropylene bag for Re 1. In comparison, paper bags cost between Rs 3-10, synthetic cloth bags cost Rs 3-5 and cloth bags cost Rs 5-10.

While bans are one step to address plastic pollution, they need to cover the entire plastic supply chain to be effective. Moreover, such a legislative instrument should be complemented with real, affordable and accessible solutions that work on a systemic scale. Reuse systems are what check all those boxes! 

Over the last few decades, there has been a significant increase in educated individuals migrating to urban areas.  A substantial number of youth and working population stay alone for education and jobs with inadequate time or infrastructure to cook food where they live.  Street vendors provide easily accessible, affordable, wholesome food options to these individuals. However, many of these customers prefer to take the food to their homes and it is convenient and economical to use disposable plastic packaging.

In cities like Delhi, where evictions are common, street vendors have to contend with damage and confiscation of their inventory by local authorities, inadequate water for washing their utensils, limited storage space on their carts and the need to keep their infrastructure light and easy to transport. 

These factors combine with customer preference for convenience and the abundant and cheap plastics to result in a system that is based on a use and throw model. In Kolkata, most street vendors used reusable plates, but post-COVID-19, customers ask for disposable plates due to a concern of hygiene. 

Although traditional Sal leaf plates were once widely used, the proliferation of the plastic industry led to their near extinction. Even wholesalers have ceased to supply them due to low demand. 

Nagpur stands out as an exception. In high density especially in areas, such as Ayodhya Nagar and Ajni Road, Medical Chowk, many street vendors use steel foodware as they have reliable water sources for washing utensils. 

Instead of burdening street vendors with bans, the government should collaborate with them to create a successful transition from SUPs. The interactions with street vendors revealed elements that would be necessary for a just transition to a successful reuse system and this is echoed by research from the Global Plastics Policy Centre at the University of Portsmouth. 

These are: Scope and materials, standards and design, measurable and time bound targets, infrastructure, financing, ownership and responsibility, just transition and people centric. National Hawker Federation partnered with Zero Waste Europe to undertake a cost benefit analysis for a reuse system for street food vending in India and found that there is a strong business case for reuse, including in open loop and informal settings such as street food vending. 

In Kolkata alone, transitioning about 80,000 street food vendors to a reusable system would reduce plastic waste by more than 86 per cent, create more than 2,250 jobs and give a return on investment of 21 per cent over a payback period of 2.3 years. 

In Delhi, the transition of 99,000 street food vendors to a reusable system is even more economically favourable, thanks to the economies of scale. While the use of reusable steel can be as profitable as reusable plastic, it requires a higher investment and user deposit to compensate for the increased initial cost of steel.

What is evident is that public policy can be a strong enabler for reuse, from creating the right regulatory framework to establishing appropriate standards to providing the right incentives for behaviour change in businesses, service providers and consumers alike. 

The government could institute stricter regulations across the entire plastics supply chain, including primary polymer reduction, transparency and traceability of chemicals used to make plastics and imposing higher taxes on plastics as well as fees for disposal. Subsidised access to sustainable, plastic-free alternatives and the revival of traditional disposable or reusable options should be explored as part of state policy. 

The creation of a Plastic Transition Fund can help street vendors reduce plastic usage while ensuring accountability through town vending committees being established under the Street Vendors Act, 2014. Despite all the burden and inequality in the SUP ban, street vendors are poised to steward a reuse system — all they ask is for the government to level the playing field and enable a just transition away from single-use plastics.

Priyanka Joshi is Program Associate for civil society organisation Parisar 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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