World Environment Day: #SayNoToPlastic is the new cool, carry your own reusable cutlery

A third of discarded plastic finds its way into freshwater — polluting drinking water sources and soil. A staggering eight million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans each year. By 2050, the ocean will have more plastic than fish.

gurgaon Updated: Jun 05, 2018 09:07 IST
Plastic pollution,World Environment Day,Marine life
A rag-picker sorts through plastic bottles and polythene bags near a garbage land fill.(AFP File Photo)

About a day before writing this article, I put out a request on Twitter and Facebook for pictures showing the toll that plastics take on wildlife. And I, who have dealt with such stuff over a decade, am shocked with the flood of heartbreaking responses I’ve received. Turtles and dolphins, hopelessly entangled in mesh; a lactating elephant who died of a ruptured intestine full of polythene bags and food wraps; cheetal deer foraging in a plastic trash, a desperate leopard with its head stuck in a plastic jar, a seal strangled by a nylon noose around its body, a stork trapped in a prison of polythene…even an image of a royal Bengal tiger with a plastic bottle protruding out of its mouth.

My personal moment of epiphany was 12 years ago on a maiden visit to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Snorkelling in the depths of the Indian Ocean, I saw, floating, among the most beautiful corals and brilliantly-coloured fish, packets of chips and pan masala. On our way back to the shore, we noticed a white-bellied sea eagle helplessly flapping on the waves. Its wings were entangled in fine plastic wire. My colleague dived in and carefully, expertly untangled the eagle – and the bird, wild and free, soared up to the sky.

Gurgaon citizens might wonder why the polythene bag you use (and throw) would harm a whale in the Indian Ocean or worry an elephant in Kerala, and how. And even if it does, why does that matter to us?

Plastic travels. Less than 10% is recycled. Plastic in garbage dumps runs off with rains or sewage into local waterways and rivers, which empty into the ocean. A third of discarded plastic finds its way into freshwater — polluting our drinking water sources and soil. A staggering eight million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans each year. By 2050, the ocean will have more plastic than fish. And oceans, along with forests, give us all the oxygen we breathe. Plastic trash in oceans is impairing this life-giving ability of the oceans.

Plastic kills. It’s happening in our backyard. Whether it be cattle or dogs who dine on rotting food from our garbage bags, or nilgai or deer in the city forests across the National Capital Region (NCR) fatally munching on discarded poly bags, attracted by food remnants and the smell of salt.

The most horrifying impact is on aquatic and marine life. Most plastic breaks down into tiny microplastics, which are easily ingested by fish or crab and other aquatic and marine life. Through fish and other meat that humans consume prodigiously, we end up eating the plastic that we threw away.

While the use of plastic bags less than 50 microns is banned in Delhi NCR, there is little, if any, enforcement. Just banning doesn’t serve any purpose unless there is public awareness.

And the only real solution lies in reducing plastic usage.

Gurugram cannot dump its waste -- of which plastic is a major part -- in the Aravallis, polluting this unique ecosystem and damaging our water sources. The city burns about 40% of waste, adding to the poor air quality. Gurugram has a history of failed practices of garbage disposal, including contracting waste management to a private company.

But here is the good news: we can break away from this dependency. Most of the plastic we use today has been developed after 1950, and in this short lifespan we have become slaves to its convenience. But that should also make it simpler to get rid of this bad habit?

On World Environment Day, make the pledge to carry your own reusable bottle, bag, cup etc.

Be a detective and figure out the ‘invisible’ plastics, like the microbeads in cosmetics like body scrubs and microplastics in lipsticks. Choose products that don’t use plastic and tell the brands that do why you are shunning their products. Exercise your power as a consumer, speak up.

Initially, it felt strange refusing the disposable cups at coffee shops, but #Saynotoplastics is the new cool, and I get a tiny discount for getting my own mug. The hawker was bewildered at first when I gulped the tender coconut water straight from the drupe, but over the years, I have heard him trying to sell the idea to others!

Plastic lasts forever, and a trashed earth or a sea swirling with plastics is not the legacy we want to leave our grandchildren. As the June 2018 National Geographic cover says bluntly: Planet or Plastic?

What would you choose?

Though she lives in Gurgaon, the writer is at home in the forests she is committed to protect. Her book The Vanishing:India’s Wildlife Crisis was released in June 2017.

First Published: Jun 05, 2018 09:06 IST