“Plastic itself is a chemically inert substance, used world-wide for packaging and is not per-se hazardous to health and environment. Recycling of plastic, if carried out as per approved procedures and guidelines, may not be an environmental or health hazard,” Environment and Forest Minister, Mr Jairam Ramesh said in Lok Sabha. (Business Line July 8, 2009)
This statement was in reply to paper bags being an alternative to plastic carry bags by the Minister. He felt that paper bags cannot be an alternative to plastic bags because paper comes from trees and more paper used is more trees felled.
Chandigarh was the first city in India to ban plastic bags. In the seaside town of Rameswaram and in the little village of Kovalam on the East Coast Road, on the outskirts of Chennai, plastic bags have been banned. Both these places are inhabited by fisherfolk for whom the sea provides their livelihood. The polluting bags are a major hazard to the ecological environment and these people, mostly uneducated and unlettered, have realized the evils of plastic which has prompted them to ban its use.
St.Thomas Mount area in Chennai had also banned the use of disposable plastic containers at weddings and celebrations to help control garbage and rubbish disposal. Recently the hill station of Ooty also spoke of banning plastic bags to stop the degradation of the lovely Nilgiris hills.
In Mumbai if you go to the bigger supermarkets each product you buy from the fruit and vegetable sections are packed in plastic bags. Alas! The rediwala or the bhajiwala finds it difficult to supply that grade and quality of plastic bags to his customers. He is therefore victimized by the police and cannot stock the flimsy plastic bags that are part of his value added service!
There was a time when the grocer would wrap the provisions in cones of newspaper tied up with string. Sweets, peppermints were wrapped in paper, peanuts sold in paper cones, food items from restaurants wrapped in banana leaves. Materials and garments were delivered in paper bags with printed brand names. This was excellent raw material that was eco-friendly and bio-degradable. Even gift wrapping was in lovely figured paper that could be disposed of easily. In those days, plastic shopping bags were a craze when somebody came from abroad and brought gifts.
The introduction of plastic bags changed the scenario. Thin filament, thick plastic, recycled plastic, laminated brown and present wrapping paper, cardboard cartons and paper plates made with plastic coating or out of plastic itself, throw-away food containers for solids and liquids replaced the traditional stuff. These items began to be mass produced and typically at weddings and the recently concluded Navaratri festival Tamboolam to water, sweets and savouries to payasam, ice creams to coffee, tea and sherbet are served in disposable plastic-ware. Political parties too began to make their flag buntings in thin plastic and kites and tatters of these symbols of power have become part of the skyline hanging from lamp posts, trees, hoardings and flyovers. Cinema posters and advertisement posters too are being made in plastic.
Mountains of non-biodegradable matter has built up in landfills, street corners, it blocks drains and water pipes. It has found its way into the stomachs of foraging domestic animals like cows, pigs and goats. Today the urban and rural landscape is a plastic coloured one. Piles of rubbish with ragged strands of plastic decorate and mar the countryside.
On and off the public wakes up in a frenzy and cries out ‘SAY NO TO PLASTIC’. Yet after some time it all trickles away into a plastic heap. The educated, knowledgeable section of society and school children who should be spearheading this awareness and avoidance campaign are some of the biggest transgressors.
A huge drive to use and dispose these plastic bags in a more ecologically sustainable manner has to be formulated. Some time ago plastic bags were used in an experimental way for surfacing roads in parts of Chennai. That road has withstood the ravages of rain and heavy traffic—other than where it has been dug up by telephone, water and cable laying vandals—better than its non-plastic surfaced roads. Just imagine with miles and miles of roads, including the ambitious quadrilateral road plan, how much plastic would be used up and thus increase the life of highways and arterial roads.
An alternative to plastic are newspapers, recycled paper bags that can be used to carry purchases. People should be encouraged, and perhaps even rewarded for bringing their shopping bags to supermarket and greengrocer stores as is being done in Europe and the USA. Eco-friendly disposables made from banana, palm and the traditional paraselai are now available. The use of these materials will also encourage the industry to make these items in cooperatives and small villages and towns.
Thoughtfully, preplanned, shopping expeditions or celebrations can help our world from becoming a landscape of "Sarvam Plastic Mayam".