Kanyakumari: The Plastic Bag Free District in India

Anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of Indian geography would be able to tell that India is a V-shaped peninsula. At the southern-most tip of that “V” is the district of Kanyakumari, where three great seas merge – the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. It’s a district with a proud record of being 100% literate, and now it has another feather on its cap - it has gone completely free of plastic bags and cups, as of 1st April 2010 . Who is the inspiration behind this campaign? What were the strategies that made it a success? 

Madavi Nathan Oliver, a resident of Nagercoil, the district headquarters of Kanyakumari in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, shares her discoveries.


Vendor wrapping fruit with Lotus leaf and newspaper

Vendor wrapping fruit with Lotus leaf and newspaper

It is more than a year since I came from the US for my sabbatical in India. It is mango season now and I stop at the fruit vendor on KP road. I buy a kilo of mangoes, a dozen oranges and half a kilo of green grapes. The vendor weighs the fruits, packs it and hands it to me. I am pleasantly surprised. It is nicely packed as usual, but the surprise is that it’s packed the “green way” – in used newspaper with a channall (thin coir thread) holding it together. Last year this time when I bought fruits from the same vendor he packed each fruit type in a plastic bag and then put all 3 plastic bags in another big plastic bag! What a difference – and no inconvenience at all. It occurred to me that this is even better than the, “Would you like to pack it in plastic or paper, ma’m?” option they give at grocery stores in USA.

I became very curious and came to know that the change is all courtesy of the “Quit Plastics – Save the Earth” campaign led by the local district collector, with support from elected leaders and the administration in Kanyakumari District.  The background of this successful program is an inspiring story and a case study on how to effect change.

Kanyakumari World Ocean DayFirst, a bit about the place – Kanyakumari District is the smallest district in Tamil Nadu, India and Nagercoil where I have been living for the past year, is the district headquarters.  Located at the southernmost tip of peninsular India, it is a beautiful beach destination and lies at the confluence of three water bodies – the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.  

Referred to by the British as Cape Comorin, Kanyakumari has been named after the Goddess Kanyakumari Amman.  It was part of the state of Travancore for a long time before it merged with Tamil Nadu.  A visitor to Kanyakumari has many interesting places to choose from – temples, beaches and historic sites.  Unfortunately, this beautiful location is also victim to plastic and other pollutants. 

Rajendra Ratnoo (far right)

Rajendra Ratnoo (far right)

Eager to find out more about how they succeeded in stopping the use of plastic bags, I met with the man behind the movement, Rajendra Ratnoo, the District Collector of Kanyakumari district – a senior civil servant from the Indian Administrative Service(IAS). After all, it’s no easy task to change this practice of using plastic bags we have carelessly gotten ourselves into.  I also interviewed multiple shop owners and ordinary citizens.

 The official ban and enforcement on using plastic bags and cups went into effect on April 1st 2010 after several months of the popular “quit plastics” campaign planning.  In my opinion, the key words for success here are:  Educate, Empower, Energize and Enforce

Training the women at Swamithoppu village

Training the women at Swamithoppu village

EDUCATE: The campaigners didn’t just say, “Quit Plastics.” Think for a moment. If you are unaware that there is a problem then you wouldn’t think of fixing it. The campaign first aimed at making the public conscious of the ill effects of using non-degradable plastic products. They focused on plastic bags and cups. They trained people on how to quit the habit. They held numerous public seminars, provided tips (for example, always keep a carry bag in the vehicle) and exhibited alternatives.

For both the awareness and training part of the campaign, they involved people at the grass roots level – traders associations – of kaikari vyabarikal (vegetable vendors), erachi kadais (butchers), kalyanan mandaabams (wedding halls), grocery stores and even sanitary workers.  They got the buy in of electorate representatives, ward members, panchayat(village council) leaders, schools, college principals, religious leaders, collectorate and district level officers.

Plastics Free Kanyakumari on Facebook

The process used multiple channels of communications – FM radio, print, TV, interpersonal communication, text messages, communications through schools, colleges and religious media. Even a Facebook Page called Plastics Free Kanyakumari has been set up to share and discuss the journey.

Within only one week people got into the mode of “BYOB”!!! (Bring Your Own Bag). Cloth bags, net bags, canvas bags, baskets- and hurrah! No plastic bags in sight!   Vendors figured out innovative ways of packaging their goods in easy to carry, neat looking newspaper parcels. Takeaways in hotels used banana leaves for dosais (Indian pancake).  Butchers used lotus leaves to pack meat.

The positive message about the campaign reached the person on the street, very successfully.   It was heartening to hear many of them say, “Bhoomikku romba nallathu amma” (Good for the earth, mam).  For example, our newspaper delivery man knew about it and he felt that the roads are much cleaner. He also commented that it is actually a profitable scheme for shopkeepers, elaborating that previously people used to take plastic bags even if they just purchased one or two small items, which they now carry without a plastic bag.  

EMPOWER:  A resolution was passed in local bodies (consisting of 1,057 rural habitations, 56 Town Panchayats (village councils) and 4 Municipalities) throughout the district not to use throw away plastic items.  Authorities were empowered to impose a fine of 100 rupees to anyone found carrying a plastic bag.  Shops that provided or sold plastic bags are subject to higher fines, seizure of materials and even shut down for non-compliance.  The administration also empowered a few local entrepreneurs to provide alternative solutions to plastic bags and cups.  Local companies started producing fiber bags and paper cups to supply to the shops.

I recall a situation when I went to the local super market and said “Oops, I didn’t bring my own bag!”  However, the store was better prepared than I was.  They sold cloth bags which look like fancy versions of the manjal thambula pais (the yellow bags they give out as favors in Indian weddings).  They come in different sizes, starting at 3 rupees per bag.  I bought 2 bags – nice orange and green ones.  I still use them, and hope to proudly take them to shops in the USA as well!!   

Rajendra Ratnoo(left), Madavi Oliver(centre) with others

Rajendra Ratnoo(left), Madavi Oliver(centre) with others


A unique feature of this campaign is the “practice before you preach” methodology. Rajendra Ratnoo himself led the effort. He and his family first stopped using plastics, followed by the entire staff at the Collector office and other district level officers. Then it trickled down to leaders, opinion makers, electorate reps, ward members, panchayat officers, and sanitary workers.

The collector was visibly present, often sporting a green shirt, at numerous meetings and training sessions. He secured the firm support of the Minister, Member of Parliament and other elected officials from Kanyakumari district. His enthusiasm was present online as well. He was quick to respond to blogs and other online chatter on the matter. These are all a refreshing experience for the public and unusual in India. This infectious energy from the top down made the public and the vendors extend their cooperation.

No Plastic Bag sign at Pharmacy

No Plastic Bag sign at Pharmacy

There are many examples that demonstrate the energy and enthusiasm about the program. Employees of a local company RedEgg InfoExpert, used the ban plastics theme in their fashion parade competition to promote the idea. A local bakery, Cake World, displays a prominent sign advocating the benefits of not using plastics. Vegetable vendor Vincent proudly sells a cloth bag with his own branding.

 The owner of Eden Pharmacy says that most tablets and small medicine bottles have always been packed in a brown covers. Before they used to put this brown cover in a plastic bag, and now they don’t. Since the ban went into effect, they bought 50 cloth bags to keep as a backup. But, they have had to only give out 5-6 in the past 2 months. Most people bring their own bags nowadays. He also cautioned that the most important thing is to keep checking, since people slowly slack off and sneak these bags back into use.
ENFORCE : The enforcement started on the pre-announced day of April 1st, 2010. Even the enforcement approach is unique. While the threat of a 100 rupee fine keeps the person on the street from using a plastic bag, the Collector’s philosophy again is thoughtful. He encourages his squad, “It’s not about how many miscreants you find, but how many you check for”.

Planning with District Level key officials

Planning with District Level key officials

I learned that he was present in person at businesses and convinced them on the merits of the program. They used short messages on mobile phones to quickly communicate about the ban. They formed 94 flying squads and inspected shops, hotels and other commercial establishments to check on the use of plastics.  These surprise inspections go on even now.

The administration is also very swift to act. A few days ago a local branch of a major retailer chain was still packing groceries in plastic bags. Within hours of this incident being reported via facebook, the district officials including the SDM & RDO Nagercoil, along with Commissioner, Municipal Administration, and Pollution Control Board Officials inspected the premises. They seized 82.59 kg of plastic carry bags and cups. The department store was also locked down until they complied with the regulations.  Again, something you don’t see your typical administration execute so well in India. Many kudos to Kanyakumari!!

In some ways, it is a déjà vu of my childhood days.  If you rewind history, the non-use of plastics is not new to India.  During my childhood in the 60s, Mom used to (always) take a basket to market, a tiffin box to buy mutton, “thuni pai (cloth bag)” for groceries.  There has always been a green movement in India.  It is weaved into the culture of saving, reusing and saving more.   Do you remember the paper guy calling out “palzhaya paperu!!” (old papers) and how we sold our end of year school notebooks, old text books, magazines and newspapers to him?  And the person who buys glass bottles and even people who buy old clothes you wish to dispose and give you some “ever silver” (stainless steel) vessels in return. 

I recall using every part of a coconut or banana tree and burning off dry leaf waste.  People used to put eggshells as manure for their rose plants.  I would be wrong to say no one does these things any more.  It’s just that fewer people do it in these modern times.  Unknowingly we have shifted towards consumerism and waste production. As our lifestyles have changed we have also changed.  We just need to go back to our roots.

I had to make changes in my own home.  No plastic bags to line the waste bucket – what do I do?  Solution – compost the green matter, save the paper, bottles and other recyclable goods to resell, dispose and wash the bin everyday – there is less trash anyway.   And just for fun, we decided to wash and save the eggs shells to make a mosaic . 

Set your own date to quit using plastic bags.  But do it before it’s too late to turn back.  You don’t have to live in the Kanyakumari district to do it.  Do it anywhere in the world.  All you have to do is carry a bag or two in your vehicle.  Make a stand. You can do your part by saying no to – one plastic bag at a time.  

Many thanks to Madavi Nathan Oliver for sharing this inspiring story. Madavi grew up in Chennai, moved to Boston, USA and lived there for 20 years. Giving in to the call of the homeland, she and her family decided to move and live in Nagercoil, India for a year. In the US recycling is easier since there are bins everywhere and home pickup of the recyclables. In India there are not many formal systems in place but it used to be part of the culture. The “plastic free” inititative by the local collector jolted her out of a year long complacency and excessive use of the easily available plastic bag. Now she is back to BYOB and more.

For more photos of the “No Plastics” campaign in Kanyakumari, check out Madavi’s Picassa Album.
Other links you may be interested in:

Maradhi Manni: Nagercoil bids adieu to Plastic- District Collector explains how they did it!

In Rajendra Ratnoo’s words :

“The plastics carry bags and cups are banned in the entire District, consisting of 1057 rural habitations, 56 Town Panchayats and 4 Municipalities (Nagercoil is one among the 4 municipalities) and not in Nagercoil alone! What made us to succeed is that we did almost a six months long campaign and this campaign had some specific strategies, such as

1.Campaign had three components- Awareness generation, Training for behavioral Change of all stakeholders and Enforcement from a preannounced date i.e. 1st April 2010

2. Focus in the trainings beyond knowledge i.e. on change in attitude and behaviour

3. Leading by example before preaching i.e. before launching the campaign in Public Domain, First Collector and his family stopped using plastics, then entire Collector Office Staff and District Level Officers said NO to it, then we targeted the Leaders and opinion makers, including Honourable Minister for Tourism, MLAs, Municipal and Town Pt Chairpersons and gradually we went down upto ward members, SHG leaders, Traders, and sanitary workers!

4. Multiple Channels of Communication, including vernacular media, Schools, Colleges, FM Radio, SMS,Voice calls from District Collector to all citizens, through religious leaders i.e. both mass media, and interpersonal communication strategies were used!

The results of our team work are very encouraging and we are following and monitoring the Enforcement! Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board provided good support in the campaign.

We have now launched the next Campaign for waste segregation and decentralised composting wherever possible and stopping pollution of water bodies that will be liable for criminal action from 1st July! We finally dream for a Zero Garbage Kanyakumari District! Solicit support and encouragement of responsible civil society members like you!

Yentha.com  : KOCHU VARTHAMANAM: One Small District, One Helluva Message 

The Hindu: Anti-plastic campaign launched


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Posted by on Jun 23 2010. Filed under Behaviour Change, Plastics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

18 Comments for “Kanyakumari: The Plastic Bag Free District in India”

  1. BYOB…. Lovely… thanx for sharing

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bhavani Prakash, Bags_Feeds. Bags_Feeds said: Kanyakumari: The Plastic Bag Free District in India | EcoWalktheTalk http://bit.ly/br4ogF [...]

  3. Thank you so much for your concern towards the the antiplastic campaign by highlighting the issue through various forms of education, mass awareness and propagation.I strongly hope that the sincere and constant efforts will bring the desired results.

  4. We at Kanyakumari dist. are delighted to see the pace at which developments are happening. We wish the campaign see the objectives at the earliest as it could be an inspiration to other parts of this country as well.
    Thanking Eco Walk the Talk for sharing.

  5. The first step has been started from kanyakumari.. we hope it will reach all of our country

  6. Helmsly Solomon

    we, the Kanya Kumari District people are fortunate to have an active collector. By his tiring effort he succeeded in his attempt of Plastic Free KK Dist. I also have an appeal to collector to change our District into a cancer-free one, as the recent survey shows that in India, the death % because of cancer is more in KK Dist. Thank you.
    P. Helmsly Solomon, Asst.Professor, Dept. of English, N.M. Christian College, Marthandam.

  7. Yes Helmsly, you are lucky to have the right top-down push towards change. From what I’ve seen of the PFKK campaign, they are moving towards organic farming which would do a great deal to reduce the pesticide and fertiliser run-off that contaminate ground water. Hopefully that will make a difference to cancer-rates.

  8. the step taken in kanyakumari is really nice and it has to be done in all the states of our country. It is essntial for the people to know the effects of usage of plastic. it is a prime issue that we people need to be aware of the issue global warming.

  9. !)The antiplastic campaign is successful to some extnt. practically we were habbituated in using more plastics.slowly we have to correct ourselves.
    @Rash driving also another serious issue.Including few government vehichles and college buses going in dangeros speed.
    3)Even now I had been affectected because my two neighbourers putting garbbages in the side road near my house also divertng their drainage and oerflow rain water and spoiled the road .so I am unable to bring my vehichles for the last 4 months.They constructed their septic tank very near to my well, purpusely.
    5) Vellimamalai panchayat contract also spread a huge heap of stones across the road for the last 10 days.
    6)Local polices are not seen in the junctions to control the traffic during school timings.

  10. you are the active collector.we hope it will reach all over INDIA.Thank you sir.

  11. VanniaKumar Panneerselvam

    The holly feet of Bharat Matha (Kanyakumari District), is now a heads-up to Eco Free India.

    Once again we have proved our 100% literacy by adopting new changes which helps the generation next.

    It would be good, if we have a formal recorded announcement in Railway stations and bus terminals to inform the travelers to Kanyakumari district.. that Using of Plastic is restricted in our district.. this is because “ Ignorance should never be considered as an excuse”

    Thanks to our collector and thanks to my own kanyakumari people for being an example for the rest of our country.

  12. Kanyakumarikaran

    Plastic free Kanyakumari is a joke. It is bureaucratic flimflam to distract public’s attention from the real problems. The waste management in Kanyakumari district despite the ban is appalling. There is garbage in the streets and in most places the sewers are open and uncovered.

    There was no debate and the public have not been taken into confidence during the implementation of the ban. It would have been better if there was a educational program in place and the people were encouraged voluntarily to shun plastics. Outright ban on materials is dictatorial and has no place in a democracy. What next ban on automobiles and fossil fuels in Kanyakumari district?

    Nearly all processed foods and products are wrapped in plastic bags. A person buying 5 items in a store walks out with 5 plastic covers wrapped in a paper cover (or bag). It is a total assault on a person’s intelligence when the Kanyakumari bureaucrats say they see marked difference in plastic waste generated due to their plastic bag ban. How can there be a marked difference when even something as basic as potato chips packet comes wrapped in a plastic cover?

    All, flimflam at the expense of the poor public who fail to realize that India is a free democracy and people need to question these hypocrites boldly.

  13. kick this Kanyakumarikaran…

  14. will you pl. let us know if we in Goa can get those eco friendly bags at the subsidized rates /Ours is a peoples’ movement called as jagrut nagrik manch.We are launching it with a ‘say no to plastic ‘project.We are looking for a bag supplier who can give us at least 20,000 bags initially.Kindly let us know if you can oblige.

  15. very bad of kanyakumarikaran! What does he think? It is d look out of officials alone? And to use d word hypocrites when u r d prime example ! What do u suggest d officials do next ? How to get our industrial units to avoid plastic packaging ? Give a well thought out suggestion dear kkkaran !

  16. Wonderful news! I hope more cities will adopt such an approach soon.

  17. Thanks for stopping by Staycie. Yes it would be nice for the idea to spread.

  18. your campaign regarding” quit plastic Kanyakumari” really inspired me to conduct such a successful practice in my hometown too.Your concern really empowers,educates and energizes me to reach enforcement level.congratulation !

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