Refuse what you can’t reuse

Vinaya Patil
Monday, 4 June 2018

On the occasion of World Environment Day today, June 5, here’s a look at what we have done to Planet Earth with our plastic-obsessed lifestyles and how we must find alternatives in our traditions

The Maori tribe of New Zealand is one that is deeply connected with nature — the two are equal and interdependent. The Maori word ‘kaitiakitanga’ means guarding and protecting the environment in order to respect the ancestors and secure the future.

The intimate relationship with their lands and the natural world is shared by many other indigenous tribes around the world, which is why these often marginalised groups are gaining recognition as vital to our environment and its fast-depleting resources.

Their traditions and belief systems often mean that they regard nature with deep respect, and they have a strong sense of place and belonging. This matches well with modern notions of nature conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources.

These indigenous people have been strong opponents of development imposed from beyond their communities. The Narmada Bachao Andolan of Gujarat, the protests against SEZ (Special Economic Zone) by farmers of Raigad district in Maharashtra, major opposition to the Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu are just a few of the recent examples from among many such protests led by locals closer home in India.

These are the real faces of our environment conservation efforts, which is somehow often in contradiction with our need for economic and infrastructure development. This World Environment Day, while the focus is on dealing with plastic, the issue is much more complex and multi-layered.

World Environment Day, a UN Environment-led global event, the single largest celebration of our environment, is celebrated on June 5 every year. With the ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ theme this year, the world is coming together to combat single-use plastic pollution and India is set to play the global host for the 2018 celebration of the day.

When India was announced as the host for this year’s celebration, Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment had said that the country “demonstrated tremendous global leadership on climate change and the need to shift to a low carbon economy.” India is thus capable of galvanising greater action on plastic pollution that is a global emergency affecting every aspect of our lives. “It’s in the water we drink and the food we eat. It’s destroying our beaches and oceans,” he said.

Dr Harsha Vardhan, Union Minister for Environment, was reported as saying that if “each and every one of us does at least one green good deed daily towards our Green Social Responsibility, there will be billions of green good deeds daily on the planet.”

Arun Krishnamurthy, environmentalist and founder of the Environment Foundation of India (EFI), says that India being the second most populous country in the world, is already “one of the worst hit and to be affected in the future by climate change, an ecology that is severely threatened. India is the focus point for this global threat of environmental damage. We have it in us as a society to turn the tide and revive environmental conservation. With one of the youngest population, digitally connected and environmentally cautious, we as a nation can be leaders in environment conservation,” he believes.

India to this date has the highest recycling rates in the world, which is why it is instrumental in combating plastic pollution. World Environment Day is a day for everyone around the world to take ownership of their environment and to actively engage in the protection of our earth.

“It is a very significant symbolic act for India to host the Environment Day as this is a clear acknowledgement on the part of the government of the importance of environment in development and good governance. However, even more than symbolic acts, we need to see actions which demonstrate the importance of environment while formulating and implementing development and environmental policies,” says Sumaira Abdulali of the Awaaz Foundation, an environmental NGO. Abdulali has worked on pollution and other environmental issues for almost two decades, specially noise pollution and illegal sand mining.

“The Indian philosophy and lifestyle have long been rooted in the concept of co-existence with nature. We are committed to making Planet Earth a cleaner and greener place,” Dr Harsh Vardhan was reported as saying.

The indigenous tribes thus become ideal custodians of the landscapes and ecosystems that are also central to efforts to limit climate change and adapt to its effects. After decades of neglect, the role these people play as custodians of the traditional knowledge is gaining recognition.

A report by the World Resources Institute last year identified securing the land rights of indigenous people and other local communities in the Amazon region as a low-cost way to counter global deforestation and climate change. This critical role has not always been acknowledged though.

Conservationists have now come to understand that the landscapes they considered ‘wilderness’ have been influenced and protected by local and indigenous communities, and that these groups have useful knowledge on how to manage them. The rights of indigenous people are now enshrined in documents such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and reflected in the policies of governments and the strategies of conservation organisations.

In line with this, many Indians too are now turning towards more eco-friendly living and even entrepreneurship models. Eco Takeware, a Pune-based business, is one such example. ‘Green your restaurants and save money’ is their tagline. Eco Takewares are a range of disposable dishware items made out of leaves (of the Catechu family of trees). “They are completely biodegradable, safe for use in ovens, and water resistant,” explains Sagar Nalawade, a team member.

The products thus make for an apt substitute to the large-scale use of the harmful thermocol and plastic cutlery.

Another such Pune-based initiative is Bamboo India (featured in Sakal Times last month). The Bamboo India team has now been invited by the United Nations to showcase innovation in bamboo on the occasion of World Environment Day in New Delhi. “This is proud moment for all of us and a big milestone achieved,” says Yogesh Shinde, founder of Bamboo India.

Every year, the world uses up to five trillion plastic bags. Each year, at least 13 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans, the equivalent of a full garbage truck every minute. In the last decade, we produced more plastic than in the whole last century and 50 per cent of the plastic we use is single-use or disposable. We buy one million plastic bottles every minute and plastic ends up making up 10 per cent of all of the waste we generate. (UN data)

“If you can’t reuse it, refuse it,” is what the United Nations Environment forum urges global citizens to practise. We have become addicted to single-use or disposable plastic — with severe environmental consequences.

“All urban, rural centers in India indiscriminately dump their non-degradable waste, largely plastic, into landfills. This is a major hazard not just to the ecology but also to human health. It is imperative that all citizens take extra care with regards to material that one uses and disposes. The theme is most suited for this time and age,” says Krishnamurthy.

In Mumbai last week, thousands of participants took part in the world’s Largest Beach Cleanup. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and UN Environment too signed an agreement to “green” the sport of cricket.

“Plastic is a very pervasive environmental hazard and is causing significant destruction of environment all over the world, on the land and in the oceans, threatening biodiversity and life forms everywhere. It is good that plastic is being addressed globally. I hope that other environmental pollutants such as air and noise pollution will also be addressed as significant hazards,” expresses environmentalist Abdulali, adding that the current ban on plastic by the Government of Maharashtra “needs much more work to identify alternates and solutions before it can be effective on the ground. Enforcement is always a problem and a simple ban will not work without a clear campaign including awareness and enforcement measures to popularise the use of alternatives.”

“The world is waking up to the fact that plastic pollution is one of the most urgent environmental issues of our time, but that it’s also something that we can solve,” Erik Solheim has said.

“We need much more focus on environmental governance, awareness programmes and we need to mainstream recycling and environment management into our development plans. Simple bans without alternative technologies will not work. The government also needs to allocate significant resources to environment,” Abdulali adds.

On the local front, the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) aims to lead by example through its various initiatives planned around World Environment Day. “We have arranged for a lot of traditional as also innovative programmes this year,” says Mangesh Dighe, PMC’s Environment Officer. “Of course the PMC can’t do all of this by itself, so we have partnered with a number of city-based environmental NGOs and experts for these,” he adds.

As part of the awareness drive, a ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ exhibition along with a Best out of Waste workshop was held over the weekend at Balgandharva auditorium. “There are a number of workshops on alternatives to plastic bags, plastic waste collection drives, seedkit distribution at gardens, plant distribution, terrace gardening with kitchen waste compost training workshops, lectures by city-based environmentalist Pramod Tambe on eco-friendly lifestyles, documentary screenings, artificial bird nest making, e-waste collection drives through Swacch, bicycle treasure hunt by PEDL at Aundh, nature trails, river walks, and much more,” Dighe elaborates.

These activities will take place over a week at various locations across the city.

“Everyday is Environment Day. Protection of the environment is a necessary element of quality of life for all of us and is closely linked with the good health of our country. It needs to be taken seriously everyday, not merely in a symbolic fashion,” Abdulali cautions.

Large-scale, repeated public awareness is necessary to ensure that we, as a nation, understand our responsibility towards the planet, says Krishnamurthy, adding. “We need to start from schools a strict enforcement of rules with regards to waste, water and wildlife.”

‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ is thus a call to action for all of us to come together to combat one of the great environmental challenges of our time. Plastic waste is a truly international problem that demands urgent action on the part of business, government and individuals.

(Most of the data for this story is sourced from the UN Environment’s official website)

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