THE global battle against plastic has taken a draconian turn with officials in Delhi announcing that the penalty for carrying a polythene shopping bag would be five years in prison.
Officials in India's capital have decided that the only way to stem the rising tide of rubbish is to outlaw the plastic shopping bag. According to the official note on Friday, 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 ($A3000) fine and possible jail time for using non-biodegradable bags.
Delhi has been steadily filling up with plastic bags in recent years as the economy has boomed and Western-style shopping malls have sprung up in the city.
There are no reliable figures on bag use, but environmentalists say more than 10 million are used in the capital every day.
Not only are the streets littered with them, but polythene takes hundreds of years to decompose and increases demand for oil, which is used to make plastics.
To begin with, the ban will be lightly enforced, giving people time to switch to jute, cotton, recycled-paper and compostable bags. Officials said it would be up to the courts to decide on how harsh a sentence an offender might face — and refused to comment on the chances of shoppers going to jail.
"Delhi has a population of 16 million, which means we cannot enforce (the new law) overnight," said J. K. Dadoo, Delhi's top environment official. "But we want people to understand that they will not get away with (using plastic bags). If they choose to defy the law repeatedly, then the court has the measures necessary to fit."
Civil servants said that punitive measures were needed after a law prohibiting all but the thinnest plastic bags — with sides no thicker than 0.04millimetres — was ignored.
Environmentalists said these bags were too expensive as they were not made in India, and called for an injunction against all polythene.
Green groups welcomed the tough new measures. "I think you need a deterrent," said Sanjiv Goyal, of Greenpeace.
"It might run into trouble if the punishment is too stiff but it may be the incentive required to change people's behaviour. It shows you what can happen with enough political will and commitment."
Shop owners had long complained that there were no viable alternatives for plastic bags. But authorities appear to have been swayed by arguments that plastic bags are clogging drains, creating breeding grounds for malaria and dengue fever.
There is ample evidence that prohibition can work; poor countries such as Rwanda, Bhutan and Bangladesh all have bans.
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.
Bags may just be the start. Landfill sites and rubbish heaps, say green groups, are beginning to fill up with plastic packaging.
Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags in 2002 amid worries that they were blocking drains during the monsoon.
Other countries have since moved to ban, discourage or promote the reuse of plastic bags, hundreds of billions of which are handed out free each year.
Denmark and Ireland have both experimented with taxing plastic bags. Dublin said the tax, imposed in 2002, had reduced usage by more than 95 per cent.