New Delhi: Despite the government’s several attempts to ban the use of plastic bags, vegetable vendor Naresh Kumar refused to comply with it.
“Nothing will change in India,” he would say.
But, recently there has been a major transformation. He can be seen handing over white cloth bags to the buyers.
“I heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on Independence Day. He said that single-use plastic is not good for the environment. Since Modi has said it, I will follow his advice, as he works for people’s benefit,” said Kumar, 35, a native of Bihar.
WHAT DID MODI SAY?
In his address to the nation on August 15, Modi urged people and shopkeepers to eliminate the use of plastic bags completely. Speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort, he said single-use plastic poses a grave threat to the environment.
“Can we free India from single-use plastic? The time for implementing such an idea has come. Teams must be mobilised to work in this direction. A significant step must come out by October 2,” he stressed. He has been repeatedly appealing to people from various international platforms to initiate a global ban on such products.
Recently, addressing the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Modi said: “As I came here, on a wall at the entrance to this building, I noticed the call to make the UN free of single-use plastic.”
He received applause as he told the world that India was initiating a very large campaign to make the country a plastic-free nation.
SETTING A DEADLINE
On October 2, he set 2022 as the year to achieve that target. Addressing thousands of sarpanchs (village heads) and cleanliness champions on the banks of River Sabarmati in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Modi said that giving up single-use plastic would benefit the environment.
“Gandhiji liked cleanliness, environment protection and animal protection. Plastic is a major threat to all the three and shunning it will help prevent blockage of roads and sewer lines of our cities and also protect livestock and marine life,” he said.
Ever since Modi, who has the art of turning a task into a people’s movement, set the ball rolling. India’s campaign against pollution-causing single-use plastic items including bags, straws, cups and cutlery has been on the rise.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
The battle for a cleaner environment was activated when the Parliament House stopped the use of packaged drinking water bottles and other disposable plastic items on its premises. Glasses have replaced bottles in all meetings and from the prime minister to Members of Parliament, everyone is served water in a glass. Big water dispensers are to be installed across the parliament building and paper cups will be made available.
After a 2004 study revealed that soft drinks in India contained high levels of pesticides, Coca Cola and Pepsi was banned on parliament premises.
WHAT IS THE PROPOSAL?
Minister for Environment and Forests Prakash Javadekar said the government was committed to the development of environmentally friendly substitutes and also an efficient plastic collection and disposal method. “We are attempting to collect all the plastic waste, as nearly 10,000 tonnes of such waste remains uncollected,” he said. Though the government has not yet defined the terms, the campaign’s success will depend on finding environmentally-friendly and cost-effective alternatives to plastic.
As of now, awareness drives and meetings by Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) are playing a crucial role in many colonies in the city. Anil Chatrath, general secretary of an east Delhi RWA, said: “Merely keeping bins is not enough. Arrangements have to be made for training waste collectors. Delhi is considered the largest contributor to tonnes of plastic waste generated in the country every day. And almost 70 per cent of the plastic in the city is single-use, with most of it ending up in landfills and drains. We are working closely with municipal corporations that are arranging for decentralised composting machines and establishing material recovery centres.”
RWAs are also inviting people to make suggestions and share the problems they face regarding the segregation of waste at source.
EFFECT ON THE PEOPLE
Vinod Shukla, National President of Pt Deendayal Upadhyay Smriti Manch, said: “No one throws away gold. Jewellers melt the old jewellery and turn it into new pieces. The same process has to be applied for plastics. India has a network of about 4 million waste-pickers who earn their living based on collecting and segregating waste in debilitating conditions. We need to include them in the organised waste collection ecosystem and provide them a dignified life.”
DUSM has been working to make the nation plastic-free for the last five years. Shukla mentioned that plastic should be listed in two categories — good (recycled/reusable) versus bad (non-recycled/non-reusable) to make it all simple.
He added: “The journey of recycling starts with consumers’ responsibility of segregating and disposing of various materials including paper, wood, plastic, metal, debris and glass. The next step is for the local administration to have an effective collection and waste management system. It is for them to send plastic waste to the recycling units.”
WHAT DO SHOPKEEPERS SAY?
Dilip Kumar, a south Delhi-based pharmacist complained: “As of now, there’s not much clarity and we have several doubts on whether or not we will be allowed to keep plastic bottles. We want that small-sized plastic bottles used for medical purposes should be exempted.”
Pushpa, who runs a grocery store, remarked: “This time on, the picture is becoming different. Earlier, people haggled with us for plastic bags to carry essential items. But now many even refuse to take cloth bags and bring along cloth or jute bags from home to keep the stuff. Small moves will make a big difference.”
HOW ARE PEOPLE REACTING?
Asha, a housemaid, questioned: “What will we do for certain essential items if pouches are banned some day? After finishing work, I take home milk pouches for the family, as these are easy to carry. The same applies to products like tomato sauce and hand wash that come in large pouches. Glass bottles are certainly not a substitute, as they are costly.”
Computer engineer Anil Kanojia is delighted that the government is finally proactive on environmental issues. “I am hopeful things will fall in place once the government comes out with plastic specific guidelines and then gets strict on the implementation part. On the ground, the situation is already changing. For the first time, people are actually talking about their duty as citizens to keep the city free of polluting items. This is a good sign,” he said.
EFFECT ON THE INDUSTRY
“The blanket ban on single-use plastic can send the plastic industry into a tailspin. It can adversely affect many since plastic is a common man’s material in the country. Not everyone can afford to buy water in a glass bottle. Also, refilling, washing and transporting will add to the cost,” an official of a manufacturing unit protested.
Since the industry employs millions of people, the All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association (AIPMA) has urged the government not to follow the United Nations definition, as this would harm the industry and economy. (The UN defines single-use plastic as items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled.) Representatives from the packaged drinking water industry have urged the government not to include PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) bottles in the category since most of these end up getting recycled.
WHAT INDIA NEEDS TO DO?
Lower costs of production and relative durability have made single-use plastic in India an essential item in everyday life. But only certain types of plastic, which does not get segregated from other wastes, can be recycled. The real problem is the relatively primitive waste collection system and the poor manner in which plastic items are disposed and waste is recycled.
The suggestions from the industry are not lost on the government. Several departments have been devising ways to encourage people towards a more-conscientious approach towards garbage segregation and collection.
WHY IS PLASTIC HARMFUL?
• It takes up to 500 years for plastic to decompose.
• Plastic trash gets degraded into tiny components and enters food and water sources.
• Eventually, at least 5 grams of plastic ends up inside our bodies every week.
• Cling films used to preserve food and certain types of polythene and plastic cannot be recycled. These end up in landfills and water bodies.
FACTS AND FIGURES
• An estimated 15 million tonnes of plastic ends up in oceans every year.
• As per the Central Pollution Control Board, India generates 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste every day.
• This figure does not include ‘uncollected’ plastic that ends up in a natural environment, choking animals and marine life.
• As of August 31, India has banned the import of plastic waste.