The mention of plastic waste creates more panic among citizens these days than nuclear war and the fear is not unfounded. Plastic is fast filling up every inch of our planet and, believe it or not, our bodies. This is all thanks to a progressive and highly civilised society where plastic is considered, and it truly is in myopic terms, a cheap and durable product.
Shillong and other parts of Meghalaya are facing an insurmountable problem of plastic waste that is polluting its pristine nature, streams and other water bodies. The streams flowing through the city are choking with plastic. They are relieving into the Umiam, which is over-burdened with solid waste. The situation has reached such a point that authorities concerned are now scurrying to cut the Gordian knot.
The Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) has started its war against plastic by banning, albeit partially, use of polythene bags at Iewduh, the largest traditional market in the state. It has also constituted a monitoring body to ensure proper implementation of its directive.
But the question remains whether plastic can be completely eliminated from the list of items of daily use.
The first type of plastic, made of synthetic polymers, invented in New York in 1907 is bakelite. Because of the versatility in the properties of plastic, it is used in manufacturing innumerable products.
The invention in a first world country revolutionised the consumer goods market in developing countries where economy has been on the uphill in the last few decades.
According to the UN Environment report 2018, “By the 1990s, plastic waste generation had more than tripled in two decades following a similar rise in plastic production… Today, we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That’s nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.”
Among the rivers held responsible for washing down maximum quantity of plastic waste are three from India – the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna – which are together adding 72,845 tonnes of non-biodegradable waste to the aquatic ecosystem, according to the report.
Micro particles of plastic are finding their way into human body through fish and other food items.
At the micro level, Meghalaya, or for that matter any place with natural abundance and unplanned urbanisation, is grappling with the problem of plastic waste in absence of proper infrastructure. The accumulation of stubborn synthetic polymers in nature has led to the gradual degradation of environment and seasonal havoc in urban settlements.
Pa’iem Ainam Manik Syiem of the Hima Mylliem said the trend of using plastic bags at Iewduh started recently. “Even during my childhood, I had not seen plastic bags in this market. Shop keepers used leaves as wrappers,” added the 29-year-old Syiem. He carries cloth bags to the market to avoid polythene bags.
Never late to say no
Shillong, a tourism hotspot, is just another victim of modernity. The city’s sidewalks and footpaths are strewn with cigarette butts (which contain micro particles of plastic), plastic water bottles, bags and wrappers as people find easier ways to dispose of waste. Harmful polythene bags were in use in all parts of the city till the KHADC prohibition came into effect from last Monday. However, meat and fish sellers have been exempted from the ban “because leaves are in short supply”, said Paul Lyngdoh, executive member in charge of trade at the KHADC.
“They are temporarily using polythene of 50 micron. But we are contemplating setting up a cold storage so that leaves can be preserved,” said Lyngdoh.
Most of the shops at Iewduh have switched to environment-friendly alternatives. Shaidalyne Kurbah, a small-time cloth trader, said buyers usually carry bags and those without one buy from her at a cost of Rs 10 or Rs 30 depending on the size.
Ram Pal, a wholesaler, has stopped selling plastic bags and is now dealing in biodegradable bags. A kilogram of paper bags costs Rs 60. When asked about the plastic cups he was selling, Pal said, “We have not received any directive on that. But I heard that after October 2, the market will be completely plastic-free.”
Ainam Manik Syiem hoped that by next year it would be possible to put a blanket ban on plastic in the traditional market.
“Iewduh is the acid test. (The KHADC’s) next stop will be other areas under our jurisdiction,” said Lyngdoh.
The office of the East Khasi Hills deputy commissioner is also taking steps to control littering and dumping of plastic waste. “We are working with the Pollution Control Board and other stakeholders. We have to do it in a strategic way,” said DC Matseiwdor War Nongbri.
Last year, plastic was banned at tourist sites in East Khasi Hills. A year before, the State Pollution Control Board issued a notification on plastic use and penalties under the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. That the directives have fallen on deaf ears is evident from the unclean roads and littering in popular sites.
Nongbri emphasised the need for awareness campaigns for tourists. The government has started the ‘Shillong-My Passion’ campaign where ambassadors will appeal to people against littering.
Finally, the state Assembly said no to plastic bottles last Friday.
Other districts are also doing their bit. The South West Khasi Hills district administration is sensitising people on the dangers of plastic and the implications on public cleanliness, health and aesthetics. Prohibitory order under Section 144 has been imposed to curb the use of plastic in all tourist sites.
A survey was done by the basin development unit to understand the plastic consumption-disposal pattern in market areas and awareness programme and cleaning drives have been done many times through government departments and partners such as the Swachh Bharat Mission, State Council of Science, Technology and Environment and self-help groups. Recently, a site for permanent landfill and waste and plastic processing centres was identified and finalised by the district task force. A proposal is being submitted to the Urban Affairs Department. “What is seen to be most important is inculcating habits and awareness in children from an early age to bring about true behavioural change and getting the involvement of all stakeholders right from village headmen, schools, SHGs, NGOs, churches, etc,” said South West Khasi Hills DC Isawanda Laloo.
One activity that has been popular and that has helped raise awareness is the ‘Pick and Walk’, “where we walk the streets and clean them, thereby setting an example for others”. Many villages and rural communities in South West Khasi Hills have also taken initiatives for minimising plastic. Government offices in the district are being encouraged to do away with plastic bottles during meetings.
In West Garo Hills, the prohibition is already in place for a few months now. Additional Deputy Commissioner CN Sangma said government offices have stopped using PET water bottles. “Prohibition under Section 144 is already in place… We are coordinating with local bodies to spread awareness and monitor the situation… There is a visible change in the district and more and more people are opting for alternatives to plastic bags,” he added.
Among the alternatives used in the district are bags made from natural substances like jute and grass.
Individuals, like Napoleon Mawphniang, Jefferson Kynjing and Priyankur Nandy, are also doing their bit to curb use of harmful plastic and reduce littering.
Kynjing and his small team of two or three men pick up plastic trash in their neighbourhood and other parts of the city. He and his family practise plogging, a new-age term that means picking up garbage while jogging.
Mawphniang and two others started Saindur Environment in 2017 to fight plastic pollution in Meghalaya and the North East and introduced SE organic bags this World Environment Day. These bags are made of PLA or polylactic acid-based material extracted from sugarcane and cassava. These are 100 per cent compostable within 180 days. The company also makes compostable packages for edible and non-edible products.
“Plastic poses serious health and environmental risks. According to a research published in Elsevier (an information and analytics company) by Portuguese researchers in 2019, micro and nano-sized plastics have been found in commercial salt from 128 brands in 38 countries spanning over five continents. In another report published by Medical Press in 2018, plastic has been found in human stool across the globe… Around the world, five trillion single-use plastic bags are used every year, which is 1,60,000 plastic bags per second. Only 1 per cent of plastic bags are returned for recycling,” pointed out Mawphniang as he talked about the imminent danger from plastic waste.
Nandy’s initiative, Make Someone Smile, has encouraged many youths to join hands in cleaning the city.
A section of the people whom Sunday Shillong spoke to is of the opinion that it is a humongous task to clean up plastic trash from our environment. They also feel that it is next to impossible to eliminate plastic from our daily life.
“This is the Plastic Age, like we had Iron Age and Steel Age. Plastic waste is an intractable problem and it is difficult to replace plastic as there are no commercial substitutes yet. The ones we have like paper and cloth bags have high carbon footprint. One has to use a cloth bag more than 7,000 times before it has a lower impact on the environment than plastic. For now, the only way is to use plastic more than 50 micron that is recyclable. Also, people should avoid plastic bags as much as they can,” said Sourav Dutta, an IT professional.
Dutta informed that researchers are working on a type of plastic that will be easily biodegradable. They are also innovating chemical processes which can break down all or at least some kinds of plastic that are in use now.
According to Dayomika Rhoda Kharsyntiew, a lecturer of Environment Science, it is impossible to stop plastic waste “but we can reduce it”.
“Plastic does not mean only the plastic carry bags but they also include low density plastic bottles, tiffin boxes, utensils, straws and plastic containers which are used to pack food in restaurants. And not to forget toys made of cheap plastic. Even the plastic bowls and spoons used for alu muri and alu chana on footpaths are not of good quality. But there is no exact way of stopping plastic use or waste. If we want that, we have to go to the grassroots level, back to the traditional methods of packaging and use of brass plates and other utensils,” said Kharsyntiew.
But many citizens are optimistic that the crisis can be overcome through commitment of every individual. “Everything is possible if done collectively and multi-pronged wise; strategically in stages beginning with single use plastic,” said Rudy Warjri, retired ambassador and diplomat.
“Personally, in my own humble way I believe in what Mahatma Gandhi says — ‘be the change you want to be!’ I have tried avoiding single plastic by carrying my backpack to shopping, buying groceries etc. Collectively, I feel committed to Cleaning Shillong drive under the banner of The Shillong Times platinum jubilee celebration,” he added. The Shillong Times is running a clean-up drive with the help of concerned citizens.
Mawphniang too believes that change is possible but it requires immediate action. “It is very much possible to save Earth from plastic problem. It is high time we start acting and if we don’t, it might turn out to be the biggest environmental disaster leading to an emergency-like situation. At the state level, effective ban should be enforced on use of single use plastic products. The government should also form an inspection committee to implement the ban effectively at district and block levels. More awareness among people is required on the negative impacts of use of plastic on human health and environment,” he asserted.
The task is daunting but not impossible. Authorities need to step on the gas to curb use of plastic. For citizens, it is time they realise that unmindful littering will ultimately affect their future. “A sustainable substitute of plastic is yet to be found. Till then, all stakeholders should work in tandem to bring the situation under control,” said Dutta.
~ Nabamita Mitra (With inputs from Heather Cecilia Phanwar)