For #plasticfreejuly, this is the second 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.
Last week we explored the insights of Bare Necessities’ manufacturing team (click here for Part 1), which consists of four women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, in relation to how their relationship with waste has changed since beginning employment in a business that focuses on zero waste- Bare Necessities promotes the adoption of zero waste practices, circular economy methodology and sustainability to consumers and businesses throughout India and further abroad.
This week I spoke to the two interns who currently work at Bare Necessities as part of this plastic waste series, Alana a young woman with English and American parents who wanted to find out more about sustainability so that she can learn ideas and concepts for a sustainable fashion business she is thinking of starting in India. It is her second time in India whereas Nehaarika is from Bangalore. The young university student learnt about Bare Necessities reading magazines that highlighted companies achieving accolades for work in sustainability for a unit during her tertiary studies and felt that the zero waste business stood apart from all others mentioned in the material she was reading.
They are two well-educated women who know and understand zero waste practices to a greater degree now than when they commenced. Does education alone then, lead to better practices in the people who can make a difference to the plastic waste crisis?
“It is high time we turn our attention fully to one of the most pressing problems of today – averting the plastic pollution crisis – not only for the health of our planet but for the wellbeing of people around the world” (source).
Awareness has crept into the lives of the two interns as it has to a growing number of people across the planet who are becoming more educated about how to manage waste. An example from Germany- a country where nearly all plastic bottles are recycled- is that the poor perform an environmental service in the capital of Berlin by scavenging public garbage bins for bottles yielding deposit return at supermarkets (source). The parallels with the informal waste sector in India and many other countries across the globe are clearly noticeable. Yet, the structure found in Germany is often not enforced in India to ensure that a standard recycling system is upheld, or it is not there at all, evidence of this can be seen with large piles of waste in communities and rivers throughout the country.
It is fascinating to think about how India can transition from its current waste methods to one as structured as in Germany, or perhaps more likely if we are to resolve the waste crisis, a system developed on the ground level that addresses the needs of Indians and works for Indians. For now though, if we solely rely on education about waste without a structure varying things can occur. I’m sure I am safe in assuming that you may think that the more educated people in India are the better they manage waste. This, however, is not always the case. Alana told a story to me about a time she was ‘in a car in India with well educated Indians who simply threw their waste from the window of the moving vehicle. I was shocked,’ she said, ‘and so were the two others in the car- two German travellers- The Indians attitude to waste was very different than ours. They thought nothing was wrong at all.’
Even though these two well-educated people knew about the issue, and likely knew what the better practice was, the deed was done. The empty plastic bottles of drink sit on the roadside of a northern Indian state as the everlasting memory of what well-educated individuals can choose to do- no matter where in the world they come from.
‘’All those contesting Maharashtra Government’s ban on #singleuseplastics I want to ask you, WHY? How can you NOT see the damage it’s doing? Shouldn’t you be responsible for the waste you generate? We are drowning in plastics. Our health, water, soil, seas, nothing is spared. There is an umbilical link that connects ecology and economy. Human well-being and quality of life are only possible through resource efficiency and environmental sustainability’’ (source).
There is a ‘waste depot next to my house,’ Nehaarika mentioned, ‘everyone dumps it there. If they could give the waste segregated to a municipal organisation that would work better’... ‘I live on the outskirts of Bangalore and construction workers often push waste out of the way to build new buildings’... ‘People who live out there are not educated to a high level which causes problems.’ The expansion of cities across the country is causing “all manner of structures (to) have encroached upon lakes and rivers with impunity, while industrial waste and sewage inflows render various water bodies toxic. The problem is compounded by the large-scale adoption of thermocol and plastic plates and glasses even in the countryside.” (source).
Waste piles are towering monuments of India’s growing waste problem on the outskirts of Delhi at four unofficial dumping sites (source), with the sites becoming some of the largest, least regulated and most hazardous in the world- similar examples are found in Mumbai and Kolkata (source). Chennai too, a city that generates 5000 tons of waste every day (source)has issues of its own. If the problem is purely education then surely waste sites that are reportedly destined to grow taller than the Taj Mahal in the next few months (source) should prove to be an effective method of communication, shouldn’t it?
However, without a system in place, we have already seen what well-educated people can choose to do, even if they know better. So even though piles of waste in cities are growing to the size of buildings- surely a challenge to ignore this situation but be aware that becoming immune to the fact that there is waste everywhere is possible- without a system in place it is difficult to resolve.
The Travelling Plastic Salesman and the Expanding Plastic Business That Now Has A Structure
“We need leadership from those who are responsible for introducing plastic to countries where it cannot be adequately managed, and we need international action to support the communities and governments most acutely affected by this crisis (source).”
‘Within Indian communities, segregation is key on the outskirts of the city where I live’... ‘When I travel around the country there are limited options to recycle in hostels and other locations where I have stayed’... ‘The takeaway industry has grown since the last time I was in India’... ‘Limit takeaways’... ‘Reusable containers while travelling are useful and I can see this poignantly most mornings at the hostel I am staying where there are piles of takeaway containers’... ‘There is more awareness now’... ‘People know about the problem’...‘My family and friends are embracing composting and have steel bottles for water now’... ‘There are solutions that are being embraced.’
The final section of this piece is not designed as a witch hunt against takeaway companies- I could find countless other examples such as motorcycle riding milk vendors selling their product in plastic packs or coconut sellers who use plastic straws. Instead, I’d like to finish by highlighting that they are there. There was a system designed for the Indian market that has seen them grow to behemoths, both as a business and an environmental burden. Bans on plastic bags and plastic cutlery have been put in place to limit the amount of chaos that the increased use of plastic has had but there is an enormous amount of damage already to be found. Of all of the ideas, concepts, opinions and perspectives about the plastic pollution crisis in India, and throughout the world, the one thing that is evident in the small range of examples that I have provided above is that everyone is exposed to it, even if that is simply in the form of a takeaway container or single-use bag.
The problem is more complex than education alone here in India and other countries around the globe. It reaches further than ever before and falls within the eyesight of more people than just, for example, the youth of today who are, fortunately, finding solutions to combat poor practices within the country before larger organisations begin implementing similar waste managing systems to what is found in Germany. Notably though, on what I see as an optimistic final few notes, there was not a proven system for the delivery companies who have grown to such a scale before they began. Or to the expanding construction work in India’s largest cities before it stretched so wide. Or to drive down a road in this country before roads and highways spanned the continent. Nothing stopped the two interns wanting to learn more and develop methods that work for them in minimising waste. They have both created their own structured systems- they did not have a set template to stick to before- which they now adhere to. The systems perfectly suit the way they live and their different backgrounds while minimising detrimental effects on the environment. They have the opportunity to help make a difference in this battle against plastic pollution, they have made their first steps, and, no matter where you are standing in the world or what your background is, so can you.