Of all the epidemics that plague us in modern living, the plague of single-use plastics seems to be the most pervasive. In homes, in offices, in restaurants, in public and private spaces, it would seem that we cannot do without these. Plastic bags, straws, disposable cups, etc, they seem to be mainstays of our daily convenience and we are loath to get rid of them. Nonetheless, as citizens of a world that is slowly getting choked by the plastic, we consume and dispose of, we need to get serious about doing away with plastics, especially Single-Use Plastics.

How are the government and the authorities tackling the plastic menace?

India seems set to take serious action against the use of Single Use Plastics (SUPs) from October 2. The crackdown against SUPs will include plastic bags, cups, straws, and other such items.

The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had in his Independence Day speech this year, urged citizens and agencies to “take the first big step” towards ridding the country of single-use plastic by October 2, and to stop using Single-Use Plastic products in the effort to reduce the use and waste of these. This is being increasingly seen as a clear indication of the government’s seriousness towards the eradication of SUPs in our consumption patterns.

According to Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, “From October 2, we will begin an attempt to collect all that waste. Nearly 10,000 tonnes of plastic waste remains uncollected.”

Interestingly, the Indian railways have just announced that railway passengers will be soon be served tea, snacks, and meals in kulhads and other earthenware plates at 400 major stations across the country in support of the move to make India plastic-free. To this end, the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) provide 30,000 electric potter wheels and also grinding machines to recycle/crush the earthenware, according to its chairman Vinai Kumar Saxena quoted by the PTI.

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“We are giving 30,000 potter wheels this year which can be used to produce 2 crore kulhads and other terracotta utensils daily,” he said. According to the news report, the Ministry of Railways has already directed all Principal Chief Commercial Managers of different Zonal Railways and CMD IRCTC to promote the use of locally produced environmentally friendly terracotta items as catering items across 400 railways stations of the Indian Railways. The earlier initiative by the KVIC, namely the Kumhaar Sashaktikaran Yojana, has been much lauded for the benefits it has provided potters by promoting the use of pottery products. The Indian Railways has already been using pottery products in two stations in Uttar Pradesh.

Why should we reconsider our dependence on Single-Use Plastics?

According to statistics provided by the Environment Ministry, we generate about 20,000 tonnes of plastic waste every single day in India and of this only 13,000-14000 tonnes are collected for disposal.

Single use plastics are being increasingly recognised as the biggest cause of ocean pollution, killing marine life and entering the human food chain, proving to be detrimental to health and the cause of chronic diseases. By 2021, the European Union will ban single-use plastic items, and in China, Shanghai is clamping down on these too. In India, the widespread use of plastic and the lack of proper waste management systems for plastic wastes has lead to a crisis of plastic waste litter across urban centres.

India consumes over 14 million tonnes of plastic every year. While polythene bags are already banned in some states, it is time for this ban to be spread nationwide. We already see the use of plastic indiscriminately by e-retail companies in their packaging.

According to statistics provided by the Environment Ministry, we generate about 20,000 tonnes of plastic waste every single day in India and of this only 13,000-14000 tonnes are collected for disposal.

Why should we look at eliminating single-use plastics from our lives as consumers?

Plastic takes a lot of resources and energy to create. Non-renewable resources like crude oil, gas, and coal goes into the production and transportation of plastic. These plastics also take a very long time to break down in the environment once disposed of. They not only harm the environment but also injure or kill birds, animals and sea life. Many sea creatures have been found dead with plastic in their stomachs.

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The plastics which make it to landfills take a long time to break down and stay in the environment for years. According to research, there is 100 times more plastic in the ocean today than there was a decade ago. The United Nations Ocean Conference estimated that the oceans might contain more weight in plastics than fish by the year 2050. Eighty percent of all the plastic pollution in the ocean is the result of garbage that gets blown in the breeze from landfills, street litter or illegally dumped trash. The Great Pacific Plastic Patch is a real phenomenon and is growing despite all efforts to contain it. “Researchers from The Ocean Cleanup project claimed that the patch covers 1.6 million square kilometers. The plastic concentration is estimated to be up to 100 kilograms per square kilometer in the center, going down to 10 kilograms per square kilometer in the outer parts of the patch. An estimated 80,000 metric tons of plastic inhabit the patch, totaling 1.8 trillion pieces. 92% of the mass in the patch comes from objects larger than 0.5 centimeters, while 94% of the total objects are represented by microplastics. Some of the plastic in the patch has been found to be over 50 years old, and includes fragments of and items such as “plastic lighters, toothbrushes, water bottles, pens, baby bottles, cell phones, plastic bags, and nurdles”. It is estimated that approximately “100 million tons of plastic are generated [globally] each year,” and about 10% of that plastic ends up in the oceans. The United Nations Environmental Program recently estimated that “for every square mile of the ocean,” there are about “46,000 pieces of plastic”. The small fibers of wood pulp found throughout the patch are “believed to originate from the thousands of tons of toilet paper flushed into the oceans daily.” The patch is believed to have increased “10-fold each decade” since 1945.”

Why citizens, citizen-led initiatives and pledges can make all the difference in the battle to reduce plastic consumption.

Says Shishir Joshi, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Project Mumbai, “We at Project Mumbai launched the Mumbai Plastic Recyclothon-Ek Baar Phir” as a sequel to a similar to last year’s effort where we urged people to donate plastic (any kind of plastic) which we would do a free pick up and then our commitment to recycle the plastic into amenities for the city. Imagine being able to tell someone that the bottle/spoon that I donated, is not a bench in the local park. What we are planning this time (from October 2 to October 8) is also gift a cloth bag to every donor, the message being, it is high time we start carrying a cloth bag, either in our motorbikes or cars or purses, so that people are not compelled to accept plastic bags from vendors. For us, this initiative is a combination of a call to action-behavioural change as well as creating a social transformation through initiatives of scale.

All that a person has to do is simply register on www.projectmumbai.org and be a part of this for a free pick up. We have also urged schools and colleges to create Plastic Daanavs (monsters) which will coincide with Dussehra and when our pickups take place. These monsters will be judged basis the message, quantity, and participation. We will help dismantle these monsters and create an amenity for the participating school/college free of cost.”

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The mindset that plastic is necessary has to go. Says Chinu Kwatra, Founder Beach Warriors, “Single-use plastic is not needed nowadays! There are many other options available for the people. And I feel we are responsible for this Ban, if we took the plastic menace seriously then this ban wouldn’t have been in the picture. We have stopped recycling and upcycling. We litter openly. So the government has to take some action. I honestly welcome this move of the plastic ban which will change the mindset of the people and force them to avoid using single-use plastic.”

While plastic does have some convenience and merit, citizens need to be made aware of the long term impact of its use. Says environmentalist, Priyanka Joshi, “As plastic has some good merits like lightweight, anti-contamination, water-resistant, strong, it is not easy to remove single-use plastic entirely from our life. We can use it wisely with mottos like reduce, reuse, recycle, repair, return, etc. More alternatives to plastics should be adopted. We need to understand where the plastic waste will go in the end before using it.”

I feel we are responsible for this Ban, if we took the plastic menace seriously then this ban wouldn’t have been in the picture. We have stopped recycling and upcycling. – Chinu Kwatra

Only enforcement from the authorities is definitely not the solution until people adopt this ban wholeheartedly. Dharmesh Shah, Plastic Policy Advisor with Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), says, “I think that the biggest one we face is in terms of the enforcement infrastructure. We are all no strangers to this. The classic example of this is Chennai where a ban was announced earlier this year but a walk in the market is enough to verify it’s effectiveness. Having said that, I still think we need to have such items banned on books. The other challenge is the lack of coordination among different agencies, while a ban is on its the imperative of the agencies like the Pollution Control Boards to crackdown on the manufacturing of such items. There is no point of a ban otherwise.”

Says Saher Bhamla, student, eco champ and volunteer with the Bhamla Foundation that works on environmental awareness and waste management issues, “Single-use plastic is a nuisance to the environment simply because it is nonbiodegradable, we have become addicted to single-use plastic. They make way to the stomach of animals, while they try to eat from what is within, affect human bodies and deteriorate the environment. We make more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic worldwide every year out of which a major portion goes in single-use plastic. Is it really worth using single-use plastic when there are no benefits? I think that change should be made individually first! One person should cut down as much plastic as possible from their daily life for a sustainable lifestyle and environment so that the future generations don’t face the aftermath of our ignorant actions and this world can be a better place to live in.”

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Says Bharati Chaturvedi, Founder Chintan.org, “It definitely would be a huge challenge to get rid of single-use plastics. We have a huge number of single-use plastics and users might be unwilling to give them up. The way I look at it, let us do it in stages, I’m waiting to see what the government decides to ban initially. I think what would be good would be to start with things that are easy to get rid of, in Phase one. In Phase two, let’s look at things that are more difficult to get rid of. Our challenges are I think first of all understanding. We have to make it very clear as to what is not allowed. We’ve got to have a central task force, and task-forces in cities, so that anything new let’s get approvals all the time, we can’t keep getting defeated by the plastics industry. A great thing that can come out of it is, creating new jobs. Creating new green jobs is important, we’re in a climate emergency, we need to dematerialize. Even things like straws, why do we need straws, we can drink as well without them, we really need to look at the ecological cost of these, not just plastic but also paper. What is really important is whether we are ready to take this to the next level, that would be the way forward. Finally, I’m very excited about this because it is a good way to get Indians to think about using fewer materials all the time. It’s time for us to take the step and I’m glad that India is showing the world that even in a country with so much poverty we are taking this plastic menace really seriously.”

Citizen-led initiatives can always make all the difference. Shishir Joshi speaks about why their initiative has worked. He says, “Increasingly, Mumbaikars want to give their time and services for a good cause. Most want to be part of social change. The problem has been a trust deficit, whom to support or which cause to pick. The moment there is a vested interest, people back off. What we at Project Mumbai have strived for is to ensure every initiative is not only participative but collaborative and which directly impacts people’s lives. We want people of Mumbai to reclaim ownership to this city once again. As we at Project Mumbai say–Mumbai Ke Liye Kucch Bhi Karega.”

Single-use plastic is a nuisance to the environment simply because it is nonbiodegradable, we have become addicted to single-use plastic. Saher Bhamla

About taking the pledge to stop using single-use plastics, Bharati Chaturvedi feels that pledges do have a role to play even if they might seem like tokenism. She says, “We all take pledges all the time, civil servants, in courts, etc. Not all pledges convert into real action. This message must get repeated by multiple people, through multiple media, so it gets drummed in that plastics are not a good thing and let’s get rid of single-use plastics. Something as all-pervasive as plastics, backed by the might of the plastics industry, really needs a tsunami to shake it up. A pledge has a role in creating public confidence, in backing innovation even in sacrifice, I would say.”

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How can you, as a citizen, pledge to be a part of the movement to remove single-use plastics?

It is quite simple.

Refuse to be a consumer of disposable plastic items. Buy items that are not packaged in plastic. Refuse disposable straws, buy and carry your own reusable steel straw if you must use a straw. Buy or make cloth bags for your grocery purchases instead of opting for store available plastic bags.

Opt for goods that come packaged in paper, cardboard or cloth instead of plastic.

Re-Use. Find items that can be re-used. Opt for glass, steel, wood, metal or ceramic over plastic items. Carry along your own re-usable mug with a lid or bottle for coffee takeaways.

Call out excessive plastic packaging when you see it. Make companies and e-retailers aware that as a consumer you are not pleased with their plastic consumption.

And finally, become a fervent advocate of recycling. See what items you own that can be re-cycled, and be aware of what can be recycling when you purchase them.

Carry along a container for takeaway or leftover food when visiting restaurants. Build a collection of re-usable containers you can use to store food items.

And finally, be a more aware consumer.

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