I am not a mall person. But a recent visit to the super market is an experience worth sharing. Unlike the local kirana store where the shopkeeper greets me every time, the very entrance of the mall had hostility written all over it. I was thoroughly searched by a security guard who had no clue what he was looking for. This is when I realized that I have ceased to remain a customer and have descended to being a consumer. You are a customer only as long as the business needs you, you see.
Anyway, since I had gone there to buy vegetables, I shied away from the shining shelves with packaged food and headed straight towards the grocery section. It is the section where you can buy fruits, vegetables, eggs, rice, wheat, pulses etc. I was shocked to see the usage of plastics here. Each vegetable you pick off the shelf goes into a separate plastic bag before being weighed. The same is true for fruits, grains, eggs, etc. Even if you need a handful of chillies worth two rupees (which the local thela wala gives you for free), you have to stuff it in an over-large plastic bag and then get it weighed.
In the end billing section, they finally charge you for that one plastic carry bag which you may actually need. I was carrying my jhola and didn’t need it. But now my jhola had ten plastic bags, each with a different fruit or vegetable in it. Do you see the irony here? The purpose of making plastic bags chargeable is completely defeated. Forget the environment; plastic is only either wasted or sold here.
You see, plastics are expensive – to manufacture and also to the environment. A car could drive about 11 metres on the amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag. The World Wide Fund for Nature has estimated that over 100,000 whales, seals, and turtles die every year as a result of eating or being trapped in plastic bags. It’s is also very common across the developing world to find sewers and drain systems clogged by bags which cause severe cases of malaria and dengue due to the increased population of mosquitoes that breed on these flooded sewers.
White pollution is so rampant in India, that an estimated number of 20 cows die per day as a result of ingesting plastic bags and having their digestive systems clogged by them. According to Toxics Link, an environmental NGO, Delhi alone generates almost 250,000 tons of plastic waste every year. If we go by or the data made available by BBMP, of the 5,000 tonnes of waste generated every day in Bangalore, 3,000 tonnes is dry waste including 15-20 tonnes of plastic. While the actual numbers can be be much higher.
Plastic is not biodegradable, so the plastic bags we carelessly throw remains there for hundreds of years. It does not break down into its elements and join nature. They release toxic fumes into air when burnt, and the residual ash pollutes the environment. When mixed with wet waste in landfills, they release gases including ammonia and methane, which is toxic and foul smelling. The Mandur garbage crisis is a testament to why waste segregation is important. Even the so-called biodegradable garbage bags are just degradable. They physically disintegrate and remain in nature as small plastic particles.
Driven by environmental concerns raised by NGOs and activists, some laws are already in place in India, but enforcement has been a major concern. Production of plastics below 20 microns was banned in 2002. Later, Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 was formulated, but never implemented. The bans failed to get enforced due to lawsuits filed by the plastic manufacturers, which are still awaiting final judgement. Different states have fixed different standards as minimum thickness for the plastic produced. In Kerala it is 30 microns, while in Himachal it is 70 microns. In Karnataka, it is 40 microns.
The alternatives which are discussed in India are jute, cloth and paper bags. While cloth and jute are expensive, paper would expose groceries to moisture and lead to fungus and insects. There are other alternatives including starch-based polymers which is biodegradable, low-cost, renewable and natural. While science comes up with solutions, environment is almost always at the mercy of governments and big corporates. In her recent book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways.
Imposing ban on plastic is not impossible. Governments across the world have taken actions to either ban the sale of these bags, charge customers for them, or generate huge taxes from the stores who sell them. Countries like Rwanda, Eritrea, Kenya, Mauritania, Tanzania, China, Taiwan and Macedonia have a total ban on plastic bags. Most European countries have strict rules against plastic, by either taxing the manufacturers heavily or imposing a ban on its usage. In the United States, cities and counties have outlawed their use. In September 2014, California became the first state to pass a law imposing a ban. While in India, we still struggle to frame rules and roll them out.
Note – Just in case, if you are still wondering about the title, it is inspired from a George Carlin stand-up.