Their Eyes Fell On Plastic Part 1

Their Eyes Fell On Plastic Part 1

For #plasticfreejuly, this is the first part of a four-part series highlighting some of the needs of the hour of plastic waste pollution through worldwide and India specific stats along with first-hand insights from Bare Necessities- Zero Waste India staff and interns.

More than 330 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide every year (source), significantly, over 90% of plastics are not recycled (source) which pollutes our environment in a multitude of ways. Within India, more than 25 940 tons of plastic is produced every day. This is the same weight as 9000 Asian elephants or 86 Boeing 747’s, notably, half of this comes from the major cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata (source). Poignantly, plastic consumption is increasing- the plastic processing industry within India is estimated to grow to 22 million tonnes a year by 2020 from 13.4 million tonnes in 2015, nearly half of this is single-use plastic (source).

The situation is dire because products that we use on a daily basis are packaged in plastic and loaded with chemicals. It contributes to the largest global garbage crisis of our lifetime, which results in long term environmental damage. Yet, this article is not here to fill you with a pessimistic outlook, hopefully by the end of this piece a little optimism can shine through. Fortunately, on a global scale, there are already systems in place such as the UN Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs), which “are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice. The Goals interconnect and in order to leave no one behind, it ís important that we achieve each Goal and target by 2030” (source)

To help discuss this global waste issue with you on an individual level, I spoke with the manufacturing team at Bare Necessities- Zero Waste India, a Bangalore based startup, earlier this week. All four members of this small team were hired locally and they have now all undergone educational programs on the global plastic problem. I spoke first to Aseya who has worked for Bare Necessities for 2 years and is the Head of Manufacturing, she is leaving the team soon to live in a different state with her family. Secondly, Shabreen who has worked here for 8 months and was informed of her current role through a friend. She works in both manufacturing and operations teams, her current position has been a large but enriching move from her previous job in sales for a clothes store. Thirdly, I spoke with Reshma who learnt about the concept of zero waste and about Bare Necessities four months ago at a meeting at her son’s school. Last, of our current quartet, I spoke to Najma who has been working with Bare Necessities for less than a month, she did not have a formal, paid job prior to learning about the opportunity and is thoroughly enjoying the work she is now involved in.

They all have different education levels, completing up to 4th, 11th, 10th and 7th grade respectively. They all live in different locations, in different communities. They have different levels of work experience too and their access to the knowledge found in the facts and figures above is limited compared to yours or mine. They have known that there has been waste in their communities all their lives but the way in which they interact, talk and view waste now is vastly different. Since being involved with a company that focuses on zero waste, circular economy methodology and sustainability in all its rhetoric the women now segregate at home, they use steel bottles instead of plastic, they bring their bags to buy groceries and they advocate sustainable practices to their family and friends. Within those close-knit circles, more people are adjusting their habits- providing there is a reiteration of the facts- so that waste is managed better in their communities. It all starts with education and raising awareness.

The team at Bare Necessities, from manufacturing to management, has undertaken almost 50 workshops and talks to almost 7000 people in the three years of operations throughout India, as well as online/ televised talks such as TedTalksX. In brief, Bare Necessities promotes the adoption of zero waste practices, circular economy methodology and sustainability to consumers and businesses throughout India and further abroad. The business aims to achieve their goals through designing zero waste products- sold to over 10 000 consumers, diverting 2 lac tonne of plastic from oceans and landfill in the past 3 years- educational workshops and events as well as sustainability consulting

The promotion of sustainable practices and minimising waste has increased of late, in the past 6 months, the team has taken part in over 30 pop-up market events where it is estimated that in combination with the talks and workshops more than 10 000 people have been spoken to. That is over 10 000 people who have more awareness about sustainability and the need to reduce plastic waste in their communities. The women in the manufacturing team take a leading role in the pop-up events, which assists in achieving another key goal for Bare Necessities- supporting women’s economic development in line with the SDGs (SDG5 & SDG8). What has been found through the events, both in educating and learning from attendees (everyone learns off everyone during the discussions) is that ensuring people are aware of and communicating about campaigns such as #plasticfreejuly, as well as implementing simple, proven, cost-effective systems differences are being made. 

I asked the manufacturing team whether they have developed their own ideas and methods about how to reduce waste in their communities, they believe that simple ideas that they have come up with since they started working for the zero waste business have made tangible benefits in their communities, especially because these methods were not widely practised before. Examples include minimising the amount of plastic by using different drink and food containers, segregating garbage, composting organic waste and carrying reusable bags. According to their experiences, this has health benefits and lifestyle benefits for their family and friends, along with the cows who don’t eat plastic waste on the roadside. 

On broader scale systems such as the SDGs can assist in helping social enterprises in India, a key backbone of the Indian economy, who are helping reimagine a just, greener, more socially conscious world, can be used to help develop solutions, maintain focus and assist in creating a blueprint for the path forward. Looking at Bare Necessities key focus areas, for example, the business has trained and upskilled local women as part of their core team (SDG5), provided formalised employment while growing an independent local business (SDG8) and is raising awareness of how resources can be managed so that a sustainable environment will blossom (SDG11). Through products and education about zero waste living, they are changing the rhetoric of consumption in India (SDG12). Minimising the number of single-use products limits adverse effects on the environment, on both land and water (SDG13, SDG14, SDG15). While combining key resources and partners in the sector to change the rhetoric towards waste in India (SDG17) highlights that these goals that work specifically for this business can work for all others as well.

I know it can be overwhelming to hear that the amount of plastic produced each day in India weighs as much as 9000 Asian elephants (source) but when we know where most of it comes from, how to minimise it and we have methods that do work within Indian communities, perhaps the real question is why haven’t we done more already. Perhaps it is simply that not enough people have heard about the issues yet. Of the four manufacturing women only two knew about the concept of zero waste- the degree in which they were aware was not measured, while the concept of circular economy methodology was not known at all- yet within a short period of time they have learnt, they have taught and they have made an impact. On top of that all the attendees at workshops and pop up markets who have communicated with Bare Necessities know about the plastic waste issue, and now likely spoken about it to one or two more members of their family and friends. Each time someone learns and speaks about the waste issue, the more likely it will be that the producers of the plastic waste that weighs the same as 9000 Asian elephants (source) will produce a little less. Maybe that’s only 8999 tomorrow, maybe it’s 8000, whatever it is, it is a start. 

The manufacturing team has highlighted to me that when they were made aware, educated and provided with the opportunity to keep learning, they have found solutions to their own problems, in each community where they live. Many simple steps can lead us to one large change. Whether that is not using a plastic straw for you, and not using a single-use coffee cup for me, they all add up. They’ll help to achieve the goals of startups such as Bare Necessities who have made a tremendous impact on the four women and many others besides. It will help elephants be elephants instead of a way to quantify the amount of plastic produced in a day. It will help us have a plastic-free life, not just a plastic-free July. It will help us become more sustainable. It will help the rest of the environment flourish. It will help reduce worldwide plastic, and it can start if you speak to a friend about this issue today.