My concern with plastic started in the late nineties when I experienced the growing dependence of plastic in our day to day lives. In early 2000, Life in Plastic, a book authored by Robert Edwards and Rachel Kellett became a real eye-opener. It outlined with facts and figures the dangerous path that Indian industry was taking in making us believe that plastic was fantastic and in the name of convenience and perceived hygiene, we should adopt a use-and-throw culture.
Plastic is without doubt one of the most significant inventions of the last century, but we now know the repercussions of the unrestricted use of this material.
It is, therefore, a huge relief that in the 21st century, thanks to a growing number of conscious citizens and appropriate government responses, we are looking to transition to more sustainable consumption practices. This transition will need active participation of multiple stakeholders, including government and industry. But the driving factor of this change will be the consumer, who will be required to correct behaviour which has become a norm for the last 20-25 years.
So, what is this transition going to look like and what should we as consumers do to participate in the movement towards having less plastic in our environment?
Is it difficult to live a life without using plastic?
Let’s imagine what it will look like when we go through some quick life-style changes that will help us shed our use-and-throw culture and bring us closer to zero-waste living.
* When stepping out to shop for groceries, we now always carry our own shopping bag and along with this, we also carry an array of different-sized containers. We then choose a store or supermarket where groceries can be purchased without plastic packaging and is instead available in loose form. We then use our own steel/glass/reusable plastic containers as packaging. Today, many supermarkets in practically every neighbourhood give us an option to use our own containers when we buy rice, dal, sugar and other groceries. Likewise we head towards bakeries where our own containers are used to pack the biscuits, snacks and sweets we buy.
* Additionally, we also pack in our bag a steel glass or mug so we can enjoy street-side coffee, tea or coconut water without the plastic or paper cup, or even a straw.
* In cities like Bengaluru and other towns and cities across the country, we are seeing new businesses in the form of plate and cutlery banks. These services are useful when we organise parties or social gatherings, including celebrating festivals. We can rent plates and cutlery so that our celebrations become zero-waste events. Of course, there will be the washing that will be needed, since the plates and cutlery will have to be cleaned and returned. This is an added effort which will have to be factored in, but the argument that this leads to excessive use of water and hence a negative environmental impact does not hold good. There are enough studies to prove that the water used to wash a reusable plate or cup is far less than the water required to produce the same.
The above steps are simple and will create a significant impact with respect to reducing our environmental footprint. It will also give consumers a voice. It is this definitive voice that will bring us to the tipping point of change.
It is our choices which are going to drive industry, including FMCG companies who will have to overhaul their business models to stay relevant because otherwise their customer will continue to choose bakery biscuits over branded biscuits.
Likewise, our food aggregators will also start to feel the heat as a large part of the customer base demands that food be delivered in reusable containers which they can wash and return for reuse.
As re-use becomes part of our new-found conscious living, recycling as a habit will automatically be the next step that we will follow. As consumers, we will therefore always look to follow good segregation practices so that whatever waste we do generate will go in the right bin so as to facilitate recycling.
Clearly, the time has come for each of us to be proactive. We have regulations, we have knowledge, we have the necessary tools to work with and we have a dream to leave our planet intact for the next generation to enjoy and thrive on.
(The writher is CEO of Saahas Zero Waste and founder of NGO Saahas, whose first campaign ‘Less Plastic for Me’ was launched in 2001)