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Delhi to outlaw plastic bags

Guardian Environment 16th January 2009

Carry a plastic bag in Delhi and you could be imprisoned for five years. Officials in India's capital have decided that the only way to stem the rising tide of poly­thene is to outlaw the plastic shopping bag.

According to the official note, the "use, storage and sale" of plastic bags of any kind or thickness will be banned. The new guideline means that customers, shopkeepers, hoteliers and hospital staff face a 100,000 rupee fine (£1,370) and a possible jail sentence for using non-biodegradable bags.

Delhi has been quietly filling up with plastic bags in recent years as the economy boomed and western-style shopping malls sprang up in the city. There are no reliable figures for bag use but environmentalists say more than 10m a day are used in the capital every day. Not only are the streets littered with them, but polythene takes hundreds of years to decompose and creates demand for oil, which is used to make plastics.

At first the ban will be lightly implemented, giving people time to switch to jute, cotton, recycled-paper and compostable bags.

Newspapers in India quoted city officials as saying that the authorities did not "want people to be harassed and no prosecution will take place immediately; [once they] understand that by using plastic bags they will be in contempt of court, they will start using other material". The first targets in Delhi will be the industrial units that manufacture the plastic bags in the capital, which officials say will be closed down.

Civil servants said that punitive measures were needed after a law prohibiting all but the thinnest plastic bags – no thicker than 0.04mm – was ignored.

Although the government had originally concluded that plastic bags were too cheap and convenient to be disposed of, the authorities appear to have been swayed by environmentalists who pointed out that used bags were clogging drains and so providing breeding grounds for malaria and dengue fever. There is evidence that prohibition of plastic bags can work. Countries such as Rwanda, Bhutan and Bangladesh have all had bans enforced.

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