As you open the gate of your home to go out, you will probably step over used plastic bags, empty biscuit wrappers or even empty pan masala pouches, strewn everywhere from the the street. All over the street, in the drains and on the pavements there are discarded plastic packets and bottles, used packaging and numerous packets with wasted food from the surrounding eateries. Plastic is a scourge that seems to have grown to alarming proportions.
The reason why plastic is an environmental hazard is because it is one of the few modern chemical materials that is not biodegradable. Polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and polystyrene are the composition base in the manufacture of plastics. These synthetic polymers are easily moulded into complex shapes and have high chemical resistance. Because of these properties they are used to manufacture several durable or disposable goods and for packaging materials.
However, plastic is resistant to biodegradation. A discarded plastic bottle can remain in a land fill for millions of years, so just consider the thousands of plastic bottles we discard on a daily basis. Bangalore alone generates roughly 40 tons of plastic waste per day, so is the city headed for environmental disaster?
Shalini of KKPKP (Kagad Kach Patra Kashtaka Panchayat), Pune, says: “The average human in India uses three kg of plastic per person per year. That's far lower than the European who consumes 60 kg per year, and the American who consumes 80 kg. Because we are so populous, the amount of plastic consumed is mindboggling and our disposal habits make it a health hazard. As long as our homes are clean, we are fine; throw all the plastic waste on the road for the corporation sweeper to clean. If they do not, we just sit back and grumble that the municipality is doing nothing.”
That's one reason why drains get clogged in Bangalore during the rains. Look into the open storm water drains which are invariably filled with all sorts of junked plastic. Milk sachets, mineral water bottles, grocery bags, empty plastic cans and containers.A recent trip to Goa and Ooty were definite eye openers. Earlier, both holiday destinations had waste plastic clogging everything from lakes, where tourists took boat rides, to beaches, where even a sea bath meant bringing up discarded fishermen's nets around your ankles.
Today, both cities have a very strict ban on plastic and the results are clearly obvious. What makes it a workable solution is the local population too have enforced the ban, taking personal pride in keeping their cities and market areas free from plastic. Buy fish from the local fisherwoman in the market in Goa and if you have not carried your own cloth bag she will wrap your fish or prawns in newspaper and thrust it in your hands! Ooty has stylish-looking newspaper bags in which your tea, chocolates and spices will be handed over.
We have also aped the disposable culture of the West and over the last decade use everything from disposable razors and pens to large quantities of fancy packaging. Apples or pears are pushed into honeycomb plastic packing to keep them from getting damaged in transit.
What happened to filling our pens with ink or the biscuits that we bought from the baker sans plastic trapping? Maybe we need to take a step back in time and go back a decade to when we did not need the fancy packing.
We all need to take responsibility for this pollution which threatens to overwhelm the city. Carry a shopping bag like we did in the old days or put a basket into the dickey of your car into which you can fill a whole shopping cart. Stop buying bottled water; instead, buy a food grade plastic water bottle and carry your own water. Leave packaging behind in the shop, especially of large white goods, so it can be recycled rather than carry it home. If each of us cut back on our consumption of plastic responsibly, there will be much less floating around the garbage dumps in the city.
According to Toxics Link, an environmental NGO, the Indian capital generates almost 250,000 tons of plastic waste every year. By the Indian government's own estimates, over 10 million plastic bags are used and discarded daily by 16 million residents in New Delhi and its suburbs.
And at times, it seems, the entire city is covered in them. Not only do they litter up the streets and parks, they also pose a great health risk to animals, particularly cows and bulls, which roam the streets freely and forage for food in the city's open garbage dumps.
Not only do the bags contain harmful chemicals used in the production of plastic, studies have also found the inks and colorants used on some bags to contain toxic lead.
The need for a cleaner and greener Delhi finally forced the city's Chief Minister Sheila Dixit to crack the whip and ban the use of all plastic bags after a previous law to use thinner plastic was disregarded.
Plastic waste also poses a threat to marine life
"We had to act and this time we are better prepared. The government will promote alternatives such as jute, cloth and recycled paper bags and we will begin a serious campaign," Pradeep Gupta, a Delhi administration official, told DW.
Violation of the ban is punishable with fine of up to 100,000 rupees (US$ 1,800) and/or up to five years of imprisonment. Only plastic bags required for medical waste will be exempt.
In 2009, plastic bags were banned in Delhi. But the order was never implemented properly because many of the stakeholders and enforcing agencies, including the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, the Municipal Corporation, and environment and labor departments, worked at cross-purposes.
Currently, around 400 plastic bag manufacturing units are operating in the city and the total yearly turnover of these units is in the range of 115 to 130 million euros. An industry expert claimed that over 20,000 people would be left jobless if the units are closed down.
"The threat posed to the environment by the use of plastic items has been blown out of proportion. Where is the rehabilitation policy for such people who will lose their livelihoods?" said Ravi Aggarwal, president of the All India Plastic Industries Association.
Freely roaming cattle end up eating the bags
But environmentalists feel these production facilities could instead be used to manufacture a number of other plastic products, thus saving jobs.
"There is a lot of environmental damage these bags cause. While the government has demonstrated political will, it will need better coordination to monitor the ban closely," Rajeev Betne, an environmentalist told DW.
A big worry for shopkeepers is the alternatives that will come in place.
"Introducing cheap alternatives to the market is as important as banning plastic bags. Cloth and jute packaging would be too expensive and paper is not a good option as that would expose the groceries to moisture and lead to fungus and insects," explained Ramesh Gaur, a store owner.
The capital will shortly join a clutch of a few other cities in the country that will have a ban on the bag. The big question is how successful the law will be and whether or not it will actually be enforced.