Mahesh Vijapurkar

In just over 100 weekends environmentally-conscious citizens cleaned a Mumbai beach of 9 million kg of plastic which was being washed ashore at high tide. It was huge enough for the municipality not to be able to carry it away to the landfills. The chief minister’s intervention was required to get the civic body to do its job because the disheartened citizens decided to give up.

It is not the tale of one beach in Mumbai – plastic is being washed ashore almost everywhere because plastic is being discarded with abandon. There are reports of islands of plastic, their thickness yet to be precisely determined, in the major oceans. They are plastic which was not washed ashore. Now, it is found that plastic is decomposing to an extent that they are impregnating themselves in to human bodies.

Studies have revealed that the world has produced 9 bn tonnes of plastic since 1950s, of which barely 9 percent has been recycled.

The real problem is not plastic: it’s us. We need not reject the wonder material, but instead regain our sense of wonder, learning to treat it as a treasure instead of trash, according to The Guardian. 

Which means, the bulk of the production is either in use but likely to be discarded sooner or later, or lying in landfills or floating in drains, rivers, seas, or caught on thorny bushes. This is part of the self-goal humans have scored, leading to a major era of anthropocene where humans are destroying their own world – the first such.

Nine million kg of plastics from one single – and not a big one at that – beach in about 100 weeks is as huge as 9 bn tonnes of plastic since World War II. It has led to such a change in human behaviour – from toys to industrial items to the milk pouch – that we accept a single bunch of kothmir in a plastic bag as a very natural thing, never mind its consequences. The world is perhaps just beginning to understand the implications but we may have put ourselves in a situation from which escape may not be easy anymore.

In this context, Maharashtra’s plan to outlaw plastics entirely from about mid-2018 is welcome, but perhaps difficult to achieve, for it would need a paradigm shift in manufacturing and distribution.

Plastic is used so universally today that it hard to expect that humans can change their ways. Pertinent questions are being raised, like, whether bottled-milk can be distributed, instead of in satches.

It would require lot more of water to clean for reuse when it is required for drinking and irrigation.

Any escape from new plastic would call for a reorganising our lives entirely differently, like carrying a cotton bag to the market, and refusing to use bottled water. We have come to believe that only bottled water is clean, and the civic body-supply require purification involving use of electricity which in turn adds to the carbon footprint. Every item one buys comes wrapped in plastic, even the single cup of tea from a roadside tea-vendor is in a carry away plastic bag.

The problem has been compounded by lax enforcement of existing laws against use of thin plastic bags which are neither reusable nor easy to recycle into other product; the ragpickers don’t find it worth their while to push it into the recycling chain. The authorities had believed that a mere ban would lead to citizens’ complying but at the same time, their production has never been halted for one reason or the other. They are produced even in the slum kharkhanas. It is a menace which all of us allowed to grow.

The Guardian, a UK-based newspaper had said in one of its editorial opinion pieces that “The real problem is not plastic: it’s us. We need not reject the wonder material, but instead regain our sense of wonder, learning to treat it as a treasure instead of trash.” Which means, be careful with its use, including how it is brought into human use, and put a value to it instead of something to be carelessly abandoned for nature to deal with. When civilisations fail, nature cannot correct.