L. H. Thangi Mannen
Most of us use them every day, the thin plastic bags used by almost every retailer we visit. Whether we’re shopping for groceries or the latest fashion trends, you can almost guarantee that you’ll be leaving the store with a plastic bag stuffed full of your new goodies. Then, when you reach home, you’ll quickly remove them like a kid opening Christmas presents, tossing aside the wrappings with thoughtless abandon. Have you ever stopped to consider what happens to those plastic bags? Has it ever occurred to you just how many of them we go through, individually, in a year?
Plastic pollution is a global catastrophe and sadly it is a man-made one. Plastic Oceans International frighteningly states that annually approximate 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide, with more than one million bags every minute. Just think about how many of these bags will end up littered all over the planet. This is having an extremely detrimental effect on the environment, wildlife and human health. This pollution is also extremely dangerous because it is leading to the transportation of invasive species, which can have a catastrophic influence on biodiversity. We are not immune from the impact either. Plastic particles attract toxins, which in turn affects us, as the toxins enter the food chain.
International Plastic Bag Free Day is dedicated to heightening awareness about these and very real and pressing issues brought about by this most popular of disposable carrying devices. We are reminded that those bags we pick up from the retailers are used for an incredibly short time, usually under 30 minutes, and are then disposed of. They may pass out of our thinking then, but they do not pass out of our world. Plastic bags remain in the world for anywhere from 100-500 years before finally decaying completely, and have a profound impact upon our environment as a result.
International Plastic Bag Free Day was created by Bag Free World. It was created as a worldwide initiative for the purpose of getting rid of the single-use of plastic bags around the world. It is all about promoting environmental conservation by encouraging us all to stay away from the use of plastic bags and instead look for more eco-friendly alternatives and carry our won reusable bags. If we can do it on this one date, then we can do it for the rest of the year, right? The day is also important in terms of increasing awareness of the dangers and the harm that is associated with plastic bags in terms of the impact they have our life, nature and the environment. So, it is good to share awareness and use our voice on this date. We all are responsible for our actions and we all have our role to play in taking care of ourselves and the environment.
It may be recalled that in the not so distant past on 17th June 2019, the Government of Nagaland had notified and imposed the total ban on “Single Use Plastics” (SUPs) in the state, which came into effect from 18th September 2019. This was in continuation of the state government’s earlier notification of 29th November 2018 on the “policy for restricting the use of plastics in Nagaland’ A list of eight SUP products were clearly mentioned in the said notification, as totally banned, amongst which was ” All plastic bags with or without handles, irrespective of thickness and size” . The notification also states that all individual, institutions or commercial establishments were to abide with the total ban, and the District Administrations and local bodies were given the right to decide and levy penalties against the defaulters in their jurisdiction. District Task Force were also set up in respective district to monitor and ensure the implementation of the notification.
The Notification also clearly listed Poly Propylene (PP) as one of the banned items of SUPs. However PP bags are being randomly used in many shops in all shapes, sizes and colours, even prior to the pandemic. PP bags may look like cloth bags, but it is just as much plastic with similar ill effects. Many are not aware that it is plastic and is falsely promoted as cloth by manufacturers. Government must campaign to drive home the message that non-woven PP bags cannot be used as an alternative to plastic bags. In addition most Biodegradable or Oxo-biodegradable bags have additives that promotes faster breakdown and just become micro-plastics. They are still single use and as harmful. Again, the so called compostable bags are for industrial composting only and not home composting nor in landfills. Thus, the only natural, compostable and biodegradable bags available today are the natural fibre bags such as cotton and jute or we use reusable bags.
Right after the notification, there was a flurry of activities by the District Task Force in their respective districts for the effective implementation of the ban on SUPs. There was also a visible reduction in the use of plastic bags in shops, markets and by the consumers. However, this initial enthusiasm to support the ban on SUPs has waned with the public going back to the old ways, particularly with the increased abundance and use of plastic/polythene bags, which has made a comeback with a vengeance. The stickers “Bring your own bags” on the doorways of many shops in 2019, are now replaced with “No masks no entry”. It would have been good if these two stickers co-existed together as they are complimentary to both the human and the environmental health and are inter-dependant . It is presumed that this ban still exist, at least on paper if not in reality, as most government notifications goes.
Sadly the pandemic has halted the war against SUPs. Ironically plastic bags are used extensively as part of the relief efforts in all cities, towns and villages to distribute essentials during the pandemic/lockdown, but are also contributing to a bigger problem of piling disposables that often leads to increased garbage, clogged drains and polluting rivers and soil. These reliefs could be done in paper bags/boxes or measured cups from bulk containers. It just requires a little effort and commitment. The current increase in SUPs and plastic bags is understandable, but we also need to think about our planet’s long term health. It is important to acknowledge that we live in a new and unfamiliar reality. Individuals and families are making difficult and often necessary changes to the way they live and consume for the benefit of their safety and well being. As restaurants and shops temporarily/partially close and Government issue lockdown/curfew directives many citizens are ordering food deliveries or hurriedly making purchases with plastic bags and disposable utensils for convenience, without a second thought on the increase in plastic pollution.
Managing this increase in SUP waste will be a challenge for the government – even more so in Nagaland, where mismanaged waste aggregates in city/town centers and landfills, blocks drains and streams, and contaminates water and soil or causes air pollution due to constant burning of landfills etc., thus triggering new public health crisis.
The Government in the interest of the majority of its citizens should reiterate its notification on the ban of SUPs, or at least for an intermediate period for a total ban on plastic bags. The ban on plastic bags will impart a significant and positive influence on consumer behaviour and consumers worried about carrying contagion to their homes will ensure reusable shopping bags; which can be properly decontaminated at home after each shopping trip. To drive the society towards behavioural changes, the awareness activities should be continued and green civic culture promoted through print and social media. While going toward normalcy and opening the economies, sustainable consumption transition maybe adopted to reduce the impact on the ecosystems of our planet, which may lead to more catastrophic and unmanageable situations in the future.
Due to the pandemic, we are already inundated with unavoidable plastic such as the PPEs, face masks, sanitizers, gloves, etc. which has led to a quantum increase of plastic waste everywhere. As we navigate the new reality, consumers whose circumstances allow for it should begin to reshape how they think about plastic pollution. It is real and the present crisis can be reduced in its track right now – if we make choices that lead to a cleaner and more sustainable future. These choices are simple but can be effective, if each person decided to :-
i) Carry reusable bags while shopping
ii) Follow the principles of REFUSE, REDUCE and REUSE
iii) Be mindful of the your waste disposal – do not litter
iv) Advocate for the Government to reiterate the ban on SUPs, particularly the plastic bags.
To many, the issue of plastic pollution may not be a priority in the face of the health, economic and livelihood crisis. But we cannot also lose sight of the reality of the ill effects of plastic pollution. We stand at the junction of two diverging paths. One is a stop-gap solution that puts us solidly on track toward a not so distant future in which there is “more plastic in the ocean than fish”, metaphorically speaking. The other is a sustainable model of living and working that will benefit us long into the future – one that will create a healthier, more equitable and more liveable future for all. July is also the month of “Plastic Free July”, a global movement challenging people to reduce single use plastics as much as possible. Simple actions such as using reusable coffee/tea cups and bottles, opting for bars of soap rather than bottled liquid soaps, avoiding pre-packaged foods if possible, and simply buying less package goods overall, would help. As global citizens we can all be a part of this movement, and take conscious effort in one’s life style changes and choices. Let us be a part of the solution and not the problem.