By Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty January 2013 Sreedevi Lakshmi Kuttyemphasizesthe need to switch from plastic bags to save the environment The last time I was in Thiruvanathapuram, I persuaded Jayan, my friend and colleague, to part with his lovely large green jute bag with the logo ‘How green is your bag?’ Today it accompanies me to the library, shops, on my travels, my cycle rides, and sometimes to formal dinners, the last much to my husband’s dismay. It is the latest addition to my collection of fabric and jute bags – a baby pink one with a green border and the picture of a woman in a paddy field – cloth shopping bags in various sizes and shapes an elegant wine-red drawstring purse fashioned out of the famous Maharashtrian ‘khan’ fabric – various sized pouches made of jute and fabric, with embroidery, printed, or plain. Going cloth Why the collection of cloth and jute bags? It all began with the realization 10 years back of how plastic bags have encroached into my life. As a first step, I began by carrying old plastic bags back to the store, but somehow I did not enjoy it, and did not feel good about it. Then the thought occurred to me that I should get some cloth and jute bags. Plastic bags happened to us like an obsessive and destructive love affair Once I struck upon using cloth/jute bags, I began to see them everywhere, embroidered spectacle cases and toilet kits in my friend’s collection, lovely purses, and shopping bags at the Thanal Zero Waste Center (ZWC), and bags of various hues displayed during other environment-friendly events. I carry them all the time (in anticipation of having to buy something), wash and reuse them, donate them, buy new ones and cadge interesting looking ones from friends. Moreover, they are excellent conversation pieces, a style statement, and environment savers. How did these plastic bags become part of our lives? Cloth and jute bags are not something new. Most of us in my age group (mid 40s) have used them during the first half of our life, which is when plastic bags happened to us like an obsessive and destructive love affair. We adopted them blindly, instead of cautiously assessing this dangerous and expensive (we do not pay its real price, we have created a debt for our future generations to pay) product which costs a lot in terms of natural resources to produce, and is impossible to destroy. It is one of the least biodegradable objects, and its recycling causes enormous toxic emissions. While growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, grocery and vegetable shopping was carried home in cloth bags and newspaper covers. Large sturdy plastic bags from fabric and ready made stores were coveted objects, kept safely, used sparingly, and shared reluctantly. The changes began imperceptibly but happened precipitously – stores began to give everything from food to clothes to toilet brushes in plastic bags. We all moved quickly to using plastic bags everywhere and anywhere. Plastic packaging is an even bigger problem, which we are not even discussing here. A serious threat Today plastic bags have become a serious threat, damaging the environment – choking waterways, reducing rain percolation, adversely affecting soil fertility, generating toxins due to its burning, clogging the oceans, and even causing animal deaths – and are literally piling up on the planet, as we speak. According to a survey done by Alternaper Conservative estimates. Also, this does not take into account plastic packaging. Therefore, the total number of plastic bags generated in Kerala every year is about 370 crores. Bans and fines have not made an impact! At least seven Indian states have imposed various types of bans on plastic bags, but the use of plastic bags continues (albeit a little reduced in these states due to checks, raids, and fines). However, store assistants magically pull out bags from under the counter (where a ban is in place) and deposit the purchase in it and the customers insist on getting them – ban or otherwise. The common refrain seems to be, how else do I carry things home? My friend, Monisha who runs RUR, short for Are you Reducing, Reusing, Recycling? which works in Mumbai to create eco-concious citizens, has been indefatigably working on reducing and replacing plastic bags in Mumbai and says, “Banning them or imposing fines is not enough to stop its widespread use. There has to be awareness and a conscious change in people’s mind about not using plastic bags. This change is not just at the level of carrying cloth bags; it has to go deeper to embrace conscious consumption.” As part of their work, Monisha and her group tried working with incentives for not using plastic bags (people got a discount for bringing their bags), which succeeded to some extent in reducing use of plastic bags. Then a few stores in Mumbai decided to introduce a charge for the plastic bags. Monisha reports that it has had hardly any impact in reducing the use of plastic bags – people purchasing goods worth thousands of rupees do not seem to bother about a few more rupees for the bag, whereas the retailers have no incentive to reduce the number of bags as they are being paid for them. On a positive note, our judiciary is paying attention to this grave problem. Recently, as part of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by two NGOs seeking a ban on plastic bags, the Supreme Court of India has issued notices to the central government and the state governments. The court wants to examine the larger issue of indiscriminate use of plastic bags and warned that if unaddressed this could become a more serious threat for the future generation than atom bombs. Our green bags! A bag like this succintly conveys the messageof its role in environment protection All of us agree that plastic bags are a serious threat; we do not need to be convinced on that count. We have to act to replace them with sustainable alternatives. For us to make that change once and for all, what we need at the personal level is the desire to conserve the environment and gift a living, breathing planet to our children, and at the policy level strong support from the state to effect a ban and implement it. Why don’t we begin by stitching ourselves a few lovely cloth bags or buy them in different shapes, sizes and colors – with prints, without frills, the he-bags and the she-bags – and decide to step out of the house with a couple of them, always and every time? Why don’t we smile and say after we have paid our bill, “Thank you, I don’t need a bag, I will put this in the bag I am carrying.” I can tell you from experience that it is almost always appreciated. Many a time it also results in interesting conversations. Why don’t we carefully re-use the existing bags we have as much as possible? Why don’t we persuade our children, friends, and family to use cloth bags? Why don’t we gift cloth bags? Why don’t we move our shopping to stores that use minimal amount of plastic and less packaging? Above all, let us realise that reducing our use by even one bag a day matters and let each one of us strive to make a difference!
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