Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Plastic - a bane that's difficult to ban

Sure thing it was - the government of Andhra Pradesh has 'relaxed' the ban of plastics from 'total ban' to implement banning upto 40 microns.Now, how does one decide what is 40 microns? Technically, some of us know what it means and upto what thickness etc, but think about others- those who have very little time and interest to check in which polythene bag they are carrying the stuff, let alone judging the carry bag for its microns. And the other categories of buyers who are well-educated on the harmful effects of plastic on our bio-diversity but hesitate to change their habits. And, this is also the time when consumerism is thriving in urban, metropolitan India. The new age retail-therapy offered by malls and hypermarkets are the hubs of carry bags and other forms of plastic items.

Telling small and medium traders, shopkeepers to stop using plastic is like the story of the king who wanted to test the milkmen for adulterated milk. The king asks the milkmen to fill the tank with pure milk and when they actually start on the task, each one thinks smart and pours water into the tank assuming that the others would pour milk. Finally, the king was shocked to see the tank filled with water and confirmed that milk was getting adulterated in his kingdom. In our context, every person will think "I will continue to do whatever I want to and whatever I've been doing, others will take care of the environment and all that".

It was a foregone conclusion; the complete ban is next-to-impossible and highly impractical in a city like Hyderabad, with due respect for the good intentions behind the initiative. And it gave a wonderful opportunity for the opposition parties and vested interests to politicize the issue in the name of employment for plastic manufacturers, small traders and so on. Come to think of it, how can there be an imposition of complete ban - every bit our life is invaded by plastic, it's not just the carry bags. Of course, carry bags cause most damage. Every activity of ours is somehow connected with the use of this material that is highly non-biodegradable. This is something many of us have accepted as a part of life, perhaps with the 'relief' that plastic scrap like broken mugs, buckets, chairs, plates, containers etc can be recycled. Actually, recycling plastic is not easy and it is expensive. And, harmful plastic is not just carry bag, there are many more things that we use for comfort, convenience and cost. So, we cannot expect an overnight shift in people's attitudes nor can we find immediate answers to the concerns of those whose livelihood depends on making and using plastic.

We all know this: the ubiquitous plastic is more a bane in any form. I need not describe how it is spoiling the environment from public places to forest reserves with its indiscirminate use. But, by looking at the way we have adopted this magic material for its utilitarian and commercial values, it would be difficult if not impossible, for most of us to go back  to the previous state of existence when there were hardly any 'disposable' (read plastic) things around us. We then believed in using thing that had a permanent character.Everything had a value beyond its present form. Didn't we clean and use the same cup again, or ate in steel plates and cleaned then even when we were on the move..and where was bottled 'mineral' water then? Didn't we carry our own bags for any kind of shopping?

Government's enforcement of any ban is a typical 'top-down' decision that may or may not percolate downstream. What can be done by us, the conscientious citizens is to spread the word about the harmful effects of plastic through different means, different media to educate the people. Such awareness may have a positive impact on reducing the use of polythene bags that litter our surroundings. Another possibility is to  practice segregation of plastic stuff from the waste and hand it over to waste management agencies like WOW from ITC/Ramky that collect it for recycling. Insist supermarkets to either use just or cloth (reusable) bags or tell the to allow us to carry our bags. Create awareness among children and use their pester power to change the habits of their parents. And the list goes on... Powerful social messages, campaigns, pledges etc could be the tools here.

We certainly need to act, we've thought enough over how to avoid and reduce the use of materials that harm us and our environment. But this needs to be done in a different way; complete banning and imposing would further politicize the issue, bringing in resentment and yielding no tangible result. We need change to the mindset of the people and simultaneously create awareness and of course support any move that helps in this direction - this is definitely time-taking, it certainly cannot be achieved with a single 'ban order' but we know when people believe in something good, they don't mind going an extra mile to achieve it. And this will definitely have the long-lasting impact. Old habits die hard, or they may not die at all...but new habits can always be acquired!