Thursday, May 27, 2010

Plastic woes

When considering Trivandrum’s (or any other city’s) rapid development and expansion, it is hardly surprising that numerous retailers are colonising any available spaces to sell their products. And with India being one of the biggest consumers of plastics/ polythenes, it is not unanticipated to find the plastic menace rearing up its ugly head.

Matters were quite different less than two decades ago. One was expected to utilise a shopping bag (usually durable) when commencing on the customary and/or sporadic shopping expeditions. And retailers, in turn, used old newspapers to pack the products. Bags were either of paper or jute, and those tantalising plastic bags with pink, blue, yellow, and white hues could be bought only for a price.

The past morphing into the present has resulted in many changes, one of which is that these plastic bags are now generously supplied by all retailers (and, usually, for no charge) - even the fishmonger. It has become such an integral part of the average existence, that I am met with surprised and sneering looks when I insist on the vendors placing the purchases into my large shopping bag instead of using their plastic bags.

Manufacturers of these plastic bags are quick to insist that these don’t cause any environmental problems. Furthermore, banning these bags would jeopardize the livelihood of many workers. Retailers are also in the same bandwagon for these bags provide an affordable marketing and publicity solution. Surely, there is no one who hasn’t noticed the glaring logo of Burberry Prorsum on that silver (or gold) bag held proudly by a WAG? And isn’t it common to find consumers carrying plastic bags which advertise sales at the large department stores (including John Lewis/Peter Jones)?

Denying the environmental problems caused by plastic bags is akin to insisting that the sun revolves around the earth. Firstly, it is difficult and expensive to recycle plastic bags. Secondly, being non-biodegradable, these bags take a loooong time to degrade (apparently 300-1000 years). Even then, these degraded pieces are toxic and would contaminate the area in which they are found. Fourthly, animals trying to swallow plastic bags are common sights- and the conclusion is inevitable. The plastic bags continue to dodge one when walking in any street- in the gutters, on the road, amongst the undergrowth, and on the rivers and streams (and it seems as if residents have assumed that these are the ideal sites for discarding plastics and other wastes). Another common sight is plastic being burned- should I elaborate more on the composition of these noxious fumes and the effects which it will have on human health?

I understand that the state has now stipulated a minimum thickness of plastic bags (around 30-50 microns) - but this still doesn’t curtail the use of plastic bags. The best solution would be if everyone would reuse the same bags instead of absent-mindedly accepting more at the various shops - and if each one of us refuses to a plastic/polythene bag each day, this amounts to refusing 365 plastic bags per annum! Another option would be to use a jute shopping bag- spacious and hardy.

If there is no improvement, the retailers could be pressurised to institute a hefty charge for the plastic bags (something along the lines of Rs 15 per bag)- and this, surely, will reap benefits.

Or perhaps the solution is along the lines of what has been so effectively implemented by the Municipal Council of Nagercoil (in Tamil Nadu)- anyone using/manufacturing flimsy plastic bags faces hefty fines (the minimum is Rs 25; the maximum is around Rs 5000). I recommend something much more heftier.

Image: (photographer:tibetanelements)

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