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Millennium Post

Plastic changes of the times

If you are a child of the pre '50s you would remember the good old days when ‘chai’ was sold in ‘kullahar’, the fragrance of the damp earthen mug mingling with the steam rising from the hot tea? Recall samosas handed out in bags made of old newspaper stained with oil from the deep fried snack or buys wrapped in paper and held together by a string. In the era gone by grain was delivered in jute bags and jaggery in gunnysacks. The ‘paan walla’ handed out betel leaves delicately wrapped in pieces of fine silver sheet. Picnics meant tiffin carriers, crockery, cutlery and linen packed in wicker baskets. When you finished your tea, or samosa or paan or your picnic there was no trash left behind, at least not the type that rain or sun would not be able to decompose and return to the soil.

For the post '50s generation it is all about disposable plastic. Plastic cups, plastic spoons, plastic containers, plastic table cloths and the omnipresent all purpose poly bag. The cheap, strong, light and functional polythene / plastic shopping bag holds all… right from the day’s vegetable to designer clothes. It is to be found everywhere, surviving government bans and time itself. The decomposition of a plastic bag takes about 400 years! In today’s ‘throw-away’ culture it is dumped after a brief handling and carried place to place by wind or the neighbourhood drain. Sometimes it finds itself in the stomach of cows and marine life choking them to death just as it chokes drains and sewers, rivers and mountainsides, parks, beaches and streets turning them into huge sprawling plastic bag dumps. In fact plastic bags are now part of the landscape right from the Himalayan foot hills to the beaches of Andaman islands. Each year more and more plastic bags are ending up littering the environment and affecting soil fertility. If burned, they infuse the air with toxic fumes. Through dairy and animal products the plastic residues enter the human food chain. Worse, the plastic bag remains intact even after an animal that has eaten it is dead.  About 100,000 animals in the world, such as dolphins, turtles whales, penguins are killed every year due to plastic bags.

Besides the negative impact of plastic bags on the environment, disposed plastic glasses, containers and packing material are also health risks. Since plastic is non-biodegradable it collects water which in turn breeds mosquitoes and spreads water-borne diseases as well as malaria and dengue fever. Little wonder that the Supreme Court in early May warned that the excessive use of plastic bags and their unregulated disposal posed a threat more serious than the atom bomb for the next generation. This observation came on a PIL filed by two Andhra Pradesh NGOs drawing the Court’s attention 30-60 kg of plastic bags found in the stomach of cows.

There has been a phenomenal increase in the use of poly bags since Alexander Parker discovered plastic in 1852. It has become the most used commodity in the world. In the early ‘50s the world consumption of plastic bags stood at five million tons a year. Today the US alone consumes 100 billion plastic bags per year. The use of plastic is a good indicator of the extent of the use of plastic bags in India. An average person in India uses one kg of plastic in India while the world average is 18kg. But let us not ignore the number of people in India compared to other countries of the world.

Does this scenario call for a global battle against plastic? Yes. While a strict ban on the use of plastic bags is not the answer, a practical solution is to reduce its use in everyday life. It will be disastrous to continue ignoring the fact that plastic takes more than four decades to decompose, is a public health concern, is killing wildlife and animals, polluting the environment and using up precious resources of earth. As the search for oil races ahead and oil prices soar in keeping with increasing demand it is relevant to note that 60-100 million barrels of oil are needed every year in the world to make only plastic bags leave aside other plastic goods. Oil, a non-renewable natural resource is vital for our energy requirements, for our factories, transport, heating, lighting till we can come up with a viable alternative sources of energy. It is time to pause and ask if this precious resource should be used to produce plastic carry bags?

A ban on use of plastic bags in India has been tried but with little success. As early as 2009, Delhi outlawed the use of plastic shopping bags. It announced a fine and prison term for offenders. The Government notified Recycled Plastic & Manufacture Usage Rules 1999 to regulate use and manufacture of plastic carry bags. Many other States followed. But has there been a reduction of any consequence in the use of non biodegradable plastic bags? Shopkeepers and their customers continue to use them umpteen times a day without a fear of the ban or a though for what havoc it is bringing for our environment. While the deterrent has not worked in India it has made a difference in other countries. Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags in 2002. The step was taken because plastic bags clogged drains and waterways during the monsoon rains. Bhutan and Rwanda are plastic bag free because of a ban. Denmark and Ireland too experimented with the ban on plastic bags. Since 2002, Dublin has seen the use of plastic bags go down by 95%.

It is obvious that in India commercial interests of manufacturers of plastic bags coupled with people continuing to remain insensitive to the adverse fallout of its thoughtless use has brought about a worrying situation. Just take a look at our rivers. The Ganga and Jamuna is filled with plastic bags. Our hill station summer resorts have dumps of plastic bags on its hill. Our beaches, including the ones in Andaman are littered with plastic bags spoiling their pristine beauty and spreading water borne disease. But it seems that Indians simply cannot do without the single use plastic bag. But it is high time that we at our individual level start reducing the use of plastic bags for the sake of our health, a clean and green environment. It cannot be left to the governments to work out ways to combat the impact of plastic bags on the environment. Each of us has to shoulder the responsibility and cut down on your use of plastic by using alternatives whenever and wherever possible. Think of carrying a cloth bag or wicker basket as you step out to shop. Why not go back to paper bags? How about recycling the plastic bags you already have even to dispose off garbage instead of buying new plastic garbage bags? And give it a thought before chucking a plastic bag down a drain, by the side of a street, over a hillside, in a river and on a sandy beach. 
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