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India's Plastic Vortex

India's Plastic Vortex

June 15, 2011

In India, discarded plastic creates impromptu landfills everywhere. Can the use-and-throw attitude change?

This morning, I undertook a terrible ordeal. I cleaned my kitchen. I washed a week’s worth of dishes left untended in the sink by my recent 7am-11pm working habit. I rinsed my tiled bench with chemicals and scrubbed until the numerous vegetable, coffee and oil stains disappeared. These were minor tasks, though. What really turned my stomach was the mountain of plastic in the corner.

This plastic was the reason I’d gotten started on a big cleanup in the first place, because I’d just read an extraordinary article in Harper’s called Moby-Duck: Or, the synthetic wilderness of childhood, by an American writer named Donovan Hohn. In the early ‘90s a ship tilted in the Pacific Ocean, letting loose thousands of floating plastic toys. These toys have spent the past two decades either washing up on various beaches around the world or, more likely, joining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a ‘trash island’ the size of Texas.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch might be thousands of kilometres away from Varkala, Kerala, but plastic creates a vortex here just as much as anywhere else. Over a few months, I’d accumulated enough empty milk pouches, drained soda bottles and used rice packets to fill five large bags – bags made of plastic, of course. Standing before them, set along my kitchen floor as if part of a criminal line-up, I realised with rising dread that I am as much a promoter of plastic pollution as anyone else. More pressingly, I wondered how I was going to justify burning them in the lane by my house.

That’s the way it works here. There’s no recycling service, public or private. (There isn’t a waste disposal service of any kind, as far as I know.) You either burn your rubbish, releasing toxic and carcinogenic vapours into the air, or you discard it somewhere in a public place. With no designated waste disposal areas or facilities, roadside landfills are everywhere; Varkala’s cliff, the hub of the town’s burgeoning tourist industry, is one such landfill. A peek over the side or a look up from the beach reveals an expanse of non-biodegradable waste that covers virtually the entire stretch of rocky land between beach and clifftop.

In the time I’ve lived here, four different groups of outsiders have tried to clean up Varkala’s cliff (and they’re just the groups that I’ve heard about). Every single time, they’ve failed. One wouldn’t be surprised if they simply couldn’t handle such an enormous task, or if they managed the cleanup only to find the cliff return to its previous state within weeks. But this isn’t what happened.

The obstacle, in every case, was stiff opposition from the local population – even resulting in criminal action in one case. I’ve yet to pin down a reason for exactly why the locals so strongly rebuffed these free offers to beautify their land, but I’ve been informed by cliff-based friends that the key factor in each case was a fear that said outsiders would develop their cleanup operation into a business. Locals in Varkala are particularly wary of anyone who wants to make money off their land.

Money was hardly the point; money won’t provide a long-term solution to the problem, either. The base solution to the plastic/waste disposal issue, it seems to me, is education. Teach people about different types of plastic, and how to dispose of each with the least impact on the environment, and you give them tools that they probably didn’t have previously. Explain the virtue of compost heaps. Encourage people to buy (and make) products that don’t use plastic.

There is a spanner in the works, though, and that’s attitude. If the people to whom you preach have no interest in maintaining their public spaces with the zeal they reserve for maintaining their own land, no amount of education will be enough to effect lasting change. In other words, if the locals in Varkala actually cared about the state of their cliff, the outsiders who wanted to keep it clean would be welcomed with open arms. As it stands, cliff environmentalism is not a priority; tourists still come and spend their money, so why bother?

In his Moby-Duck article, Hohn draws connections to the floating toy spill from various points in history. Chief among them is the plastic boom in the wake of World War II when, for example, your three-year-old’s bathtime was revolutionised by the mass production and sale of plastic and rubber toys. No sharp edges, no heavy weights. Just smooth, clean, healthy fun. The same principle applied throughout the rest of the house – plastic-handled knives to fit calmly in your hand, seemingly everlasting Tupperware containers – and into the streets. With plastic filling the market, the world was a safer and more convenient place.

This is something like the prevailing attitude in India today. Plastic indicates an industrially created product. It’s therefore likely to work better and last longer than woodworked or metalworked items. The fact that baby is less likely to be cut or bruised by a plastic toy, as opposed to an old-fashioned holds huge appeal in a land where family is at the centre of everyday life and children are treated like princes and princesses.

A friend of mine, who was born and brought up in Kerala but has spent time working in Europe, insists this attitude is just part of a cycle. In terms of their view on environmental issues, India is currently about 50 years behind Europe and the rest of the Western world, he believes. The present attitude of use-and-throw – without care for consequences – was something the West went through as well in that post-WW2 period, and look at the outcry against plastics now. India will get there, he says. He may have a point, but plastic still gets produced and used on an unbelievable scale in the West, so it’s not exactly a shining example of environmentalism; still, the agitation is there, and even if people still use plastics, they at least acknowledge that it’s not ideal.

In spite of the imperfect household environmentalism of my Western upbringing, I know it’s possible to have a society which completely understands waste and how best to dispose of it, because in Japan, that society already exists. A year in Japan with its intricate timetable of waste collection (PET bottles on Thursdays, if I remember correctly, and textiles every other Monday) taught me more than my entire upbringing in New Zealand. So, if India is 50 years behind the West in terms of attitude, perhaps it is another 50 years behind Japan in terms of education. Hopefully, the whole world will understand the consequences of wastage soon, India included.

Back in my quiet little Varkala lane, my mind filled with Hohn’s article about the virtual immortality of a few thousand plastic toys, I watched the flames twist and melt the plastic that had previously filled my house and felt pangs of regret, mixed with disgust. There and then, I resolved to pay closer attention to the packaging of the items I buy, and to try and use – and waste – a good deal less plastic than I have previously. For me, as with anyone, the key to a better future is not in merely making such a resolution, but in actually following through on it


  • Gaurav
    20.10.12 03:14 AM
    We, a group of students, are starting a humble initiative to create a cleaner and safer environment. Let us SAY NO TO PLASTIC. Do like the page and contribute if you agree with our vision. Else ignore.
  • ravi
    02.10.12 05:37 PM
    save plastic save earth
  • karthik
    29.01.12 03:32 PM
  • ravindra
    22.01.12 03:38 PM
    recylce plastic --save mother earth
  • ravindra
    22.01.12 03:37 PM
    india certainly lags behind world's rich socio-cultural and religious background is polluted and development asfect is in course we need to save our animal, plant and obviousely human planet...i will be with u
    thank u
  • S.A.Rahim
    20.01.12 04:37 AM
    We have taken up "trash less Kerala"(Maalinya Rahitha Keralam)through an ambitious PAT (Psychic Amendment Technique)which is a strenius education,encouragement and employment method with monitoring and mangement ssytems for waste from urban,rural,coastal and tourist zones with peoples particiaption with a strong spirit to see Kerala matures enough to overcome the enviornmental hazards .
    Can your organisations or NRI support us in this endevour.
  • Lata Menon
    Lata Menon
    17.12.11 10:32 AM
    It makes me feel like crying when I see plastic being burnt.The biggest culprits are the municipal corporations.
    I do my little bit by carrying my own shopping bags,for buying non-veg I carry my own steel 'dabbas'.For now I am carrying those net veg bags when I go to supermarkets to buy my vegetables.I try to tell people that You only have to take a little trouble of carrying empty cloth bags but they don't seem convinced:(.People stare at me as I give my 'dabbas when buying my non-veg.
    27.07.11 01:29 AM
    Let's start acting today and promote the act of recycling materials such as plastic. This way, we can lessen and prevent problems on our environment. Hope everyone shares the word about recycling so that they will know how crucial it is today. Let us spread the word. It's not yet too late
  • chandrima
    15.06.11 09:57 PM
    Very true. I left India 10 years ago, went to Germany and I found that they are kind of recycling kings. Plastic, paper, metal, other rubbish is collected from every house. There are places for electronic waste management and batterie collections. I said was! Living there for 8 years I slowly became part of the recycling process, got educated and felt good for having environment friendly lifestyle. Now coming back to India, first thing I noticed were those heaps of plastics, lying all over, also in front of world heritages like 'Ajanta Ellora'. Belive me they were not there 10 years ago. Plastic was not so omni present. My parents always used home sewed shopping bags, one for non veg, one for veggies. I always took tiffin boxes made up of steel. My mother always recycles few plastic packets she had in her kitchen drawers. Plastic boxes were looked upon with little criticism due to its smell and heat sensitivity as food was mostly home cooked and hot before going to the lunch boxes. But the more we are getting habituated of eating sandwiches, going to supermarkets,the more we can see plastics all around us.
    Thank you for this article. India really need education on plastic management.

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