I once counted the number of single-use plastic packets from one trip to my local market.
1kg potatoes and 1 garlic bulb—1
500g prawns—2 (a packet inside a packet)
6 eggs—1 (a paper packet inside a plastic bag)
4 Coke Zero—1 (and 4 plastic bottles)
200g yogurt—1 (clay cup in a plastic bag)
In one 20-minute jaunt through the market, I had accumulated a dozen plastic packets. There was a plastic bag for everything and everything was in a plastic bag. And this was my local market. It was not a supermarket where every little packet of chillies comes neatly sealed in its own plastic coffin.
Now I try to be more mindful. I say “I don’t need that bag" as my vegetable vendor automatically reaches for a flimsy plastic bag for that one little green pumpkin I have bought. I try and carry enough bags with me. But it is not easy.
We are addicted to the use-and-throw convenience of plastic. And even as the government tries to ring the warning bell on single-use plastic, our home delivery culture brings even more plastic and styrofoam to the door.
The food delivery app delivers my meals in plastic boxes, sealed in more plastic to avoid spillage, all delivered in a crackling plastic bag, though I hear some fancier places use biodegradable boxes now. The online retailers send everything sealed tight in cardboard, plastic, styrofoam and bubble wrap. Please rate your delivery, the friendly online retailer tells us. How was the packaging?
Someone I know once ordered toothpaste online because it was easier than going to the store. I shudder to think how much plastic it came wrapped in. He has not done it since.
The country’s plastic packaging industry produced 13.4 million tonnes in 2015. It will grow to 22 million tonnes in 2020, says a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry study. Almost half of this is single-use plastic. It’s hard to remember in the excitement of those super offers raining down on us during Diwali sales that India generates 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day—and I know I am part of it.
Of course, the government has to do its part. We can argue whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s exhortation to phase out single-use plastic by 2022 rather than a ban, was a cop-out. Our cows are still choking on plastic. Micro plastic is in our fish. The drains get clogged with plastic. And my local bikriwalla, who buys old newspapers and bottles, sits amidst mountains of plastic bottles. I feel pious about recycling though I know that even recyclable plastic can only be recycled seven-nine times before it ends up in the landfill.
Glass can be recycled endlessly but my bikriwalla has no use for all the heavy bottles I lug over. Glass is apparently not worth the effort, he says, advising me to get rid of the bottles one by one. So the building sweeper thinks I have a sudden drinking problem because I have slowly started putting out months worth of stored bottles, one or two at a time, every other day with my trash.
But I daresay that something is shifting finally within us. This year, during Kolkata’s annual Durga Puja extravaganza, I saw booths with young men and women talking to the milling crowds about avoiding single-use plastic. Plastic-free Durga Puja was not something I had ever heard of before. There was still an awful lot of plastic floating around but there was also the glimmer of a consciousness I hadn’t seen before. One puja used 500,000 plastic bottles to decorate the pandal and drive home the message of plastic waste, though I don’t know what happened to the bottles afterwards. Another one used a trail of plastic bags to remind visitors about our plastic problem. A big-ticket puja declared itself a plastic-free zone. Booklets on responsible waste management were distributed at various pujapandals; there were even Green Puja awards. The no-plastic theme continued into Diwali and Kali Puja. I heard a political meeting near a busy Diwali market pleading with shoppers to carry their own cloth and jute bags. One neighbourhood Kali Puja exhorted us to say no to plastic. They lined the entire alley leading to the goddess with white styrofoam plates with forbidding red slashes drawn on them. Of course, purchasing plastic to say “No To Plastic" is a little ironic. I don’t know what they were planning to do with those plates once the puja was over. I don’t know the real impact of all this. I don’t know how much of this is just paying lip service to the issue of the day. The Kolkata municipal corporation estimates the city generates 4,000 metric tonnes of waste on a regular day and this doubles during Durga Puja. But it still counts for something that puja organizers are finally thinking not just about the number of visitors but also their carbon footprint.
It’s easy to feel helpless when it comes to global warming while being stricken by climate anxiety. We don’t think anything we can do can stop that glacier from melting. But plastics is a different matter. We can be the change we want to see—or at least the beginning of that change.
However, the new plastic consciousness comes with its own plastic anxiety. I am acutely embarrassed to admit that when I lived in the US, I actually brought back plastic bags for my mother. I actually remember shopping in a Neiman Marcus in San Francisco and saving the bag to take home to my mother. She loved it and saved it in the bag pile in her bedroom where all the “foreign-returned" bags went, though I know, in her heart of hearts, like good colonized Indians, she loved Harrods more. The crackly domestic ones from the local sari shop were relegated to the heat and smoke of the kitchen. And when we needed a bag, we had to put in a formal request with a photocopy of the Aadhaar card. Well, the last part is not true but it was close enough—such was the zeal with which the bag hoard was guarded.
Now my mother has suddenly started looking at her stockpile as if she is sitting on a pile of ₹1,000 notes and the Swachh Bharat police is going to knock on the door any minute.
In reality, however, my own consumption of plastic far exceeds my mother’s plastic bag fetish. She is not on food delivery apps, I am. I am the one splurging on the online Diwali sales. My mother’s bags are reused and put away, folded as neatly as an ironed sari. Those plastic food containers are washed and saved for leftovers or turned into spice jars. She reuses everything because her mother reused everything, as did her grandmother long before anyone was talking about recycling. We come from the shiny new plastic generation that laughed at that socialist thrift. The world had been flung open to us and we carried the spoils home in plastic bags.
Now the world is going to hell not in a handbasket but in a plastic bag.
This year, when I went to the US, I did not bring back any plastic bags. I brought back some party glasses though. I had always thought the flimsy plastic ones our local market stocked looked tacky. The plastic wine glasses I found at the party store in the US looked ever so much more sophisticated. A few years ago, I had brought back a box of them and they were quite a hit. But now that seemed a travesty—buying plastic glasses in the US to bring to India. Then I discovered these new glasses. They look like plastic but they are “100% made from plants renewable BPA-free compostable" that break down in a matter of months, not millennia.
My next party could mark the beginning of a new tradition.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.
Twitter - @sandipr