For a plastic-free Pune

Gurleen Sethi
Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The next time you are going shopping, take a cloth bag from the shopkeeper. It will help reduce plastic and help preserve environment

All of us are aware of the ills of plastic and its widespread use. Many aware citizens are working to curb it, some even trying to eradicate it from our lives. City-based Eco-Warriors is one such group. After collecting plastic from citizens by picking it from their doorstep and giving it for recycling, it is now working towards replacing plastic bags with cloth bags. We spoke to Mita Banerjee, its founder, and she shared some important facts about the use of plastic and how the team is working to eradicate it.

“We are a growing group of concerned citizens who have decided to do something concrete about the stinking piles of garbage that we see on the roads. We call ourselves Eco-Warriors, and our mission is a Swachh Pune.”

Banerjee recalls the journey that started in 2014, with the impetus given by the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. “We started working in the field of solid waste management. The beginnings were modest, but today, it’s spread like a spider’s web. We realised that plastic formed a major part of the garbage, and not only was it non-bio-degradable, it was also polluting the air, soil and water. We teamed up with Dr Medha Tadpatrikar’s Rudra Environmental Solutions, and learnt to segregate our own household plastic (empty grocery packets, shampoo bottles, cream jars, even toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes and bubble wrap!) and give it for recycling. While doing this, we realised the immense quantities of plastic that we use and discard so thoughtlessly every day,” she says.

The next logical step then was to ‘Reduce’ the quantity of plastic. Says Banerjee, “With Maharashtra government making an announcement that it was planning to ban plastic bags from March 2018, we started another initiative to #MakePunePlasticBagFree. This is part of our #NoPlasticBags Movement whereby we supply cloth bags and encourage citizens to #Carry your Own Bag. We were inspired by stories of other states like Rajasthan and Kerala which had banned plastic bags, and only allowed cloth or paper bags.”

Plastic has its benefits — it’s cheap, durable, waterproof and light. But the bad part is that it’s totally indestructible! And while it’s lying around, it cause so much damage. Plastic bags choke up drains, causing flooding during heavy rains. Cows eat them and die. Plastic bags get into the river system and also into oceans, where they are swallowed by marine life. Dead whales have been found with their stomachs packed with kilos of plastic bags!

“Each year, 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That’s nearly two million plastic bags used per minute. Over 100 million marine animals are killed each year due to plastic debris in the ocean. Currently, it is estimated that there are 100 million tons of plastic in oceans around the world. So we Eco-Warriors began thinking of a way to reduce this menace. We remembered the days of our childhood when we always carried cloth bags with us whenever we went shopping. Our mothers would make them using old saris, skirts and trousers. Why not restart this old system again! Our group of dedicated Eco-Warriors (we now have a sub-branch called Cloth Bag Warriors) volunteer selflessly. Rajeshwari Lakhani, a  friend of mine, has taught various NGOs and Self-Help Groups, to make bags out of used cloth (bedsheets, curtains). But we have to arrange for the cloth!” she explains.

Eco-Warriors put out requests for donation of used bedsheets and curtains, which are handed over to Lakhani. The women pick up the cloth from her place, and a week later, give back the finished bags. It is then picked up by another cloth bag-warrior, Anagha Dhara. From her house, the bags are collected by other members.

Each Eco-Warrior has ‘adopted’ a few shops and they give these bags to the shopkeepers — groceries, vegetable vendors, a few bakeries and sweet shops — who in turn request customers to use these rather than plastic bags. 

Banerjee admits that it’s a logistic nightmare, and the system would have collapsed without determination and dedication of Dhara, who is doing the work, in spite of a hectic work schedule at an IT firm. The team also gives each shopkeeper posters which carry very pertinent eco-messages.

“We are constantly improvising. When people give us white bedsheets, friends like Neha Asher, Renuka and Pranjali paint them with beautiful designs, and people pick them to use as gifting bags, and thus reduce the use of shiny gift-wrapping paper,” says Banerjee. 

The women who stitch the bags charge Rs 10 for a bag, and this entire amount is recovered from the customer. “Yes, it’s tough! Customers have got used to getting free plastic bags with their purchases, and refuse to spend a mere Rs 10. So sometimes we stand there, and explain that once they have invested that little money, it’s their contribution for a Clean Earth! They can RE-USE it again and again,” Banerjee says. She points out that it’s supposedly the more educated and better-off people who scoff and argue with the shopkeepers!

To get more people involved, Eco-Warriors held Poster Painting campaigns in housing societies where it was encouraged as a family activity. The family then gives their poster to a local shop, and requests the shopkeeper and customers to support this. So one by one, these families also understand the harm caused by plastic, and that each one of us has to do something about it.

“If we are to realise the dream of a Swachh Pune, each and every citizen has to play a role,” feels Banerjee, adding, “We are generating more and more garbage than what are fore-fathers did. We must realise that every bit of plastic we use remains on the earth FOREVER! The accumulated cost of this plastic will be borne by our children, in two decades from now. We take great care to see that they eat healthy food, but we are giving them an unhealthy Earth! We have to inculcate some discipline,” she appeals.

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