After decades as one of the world’s largest contributors to plastic waste, India has pledged to be single-use plastic free by 2020. But what does that pledge look like in real-time? Huw Kingston finds out.
It took me quite a while to find it. I’d searched the whole of our rather luxurious cabin at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge for what is usually so easy to find.
Finally, I sat down in the bathroom and there it was; a plastic wrap around a spare toilet roll. Otherwise, not one sign of today’s modern evil: Soap was in bars, coffee in jars, filtered water in reusable aluminium bottles, bins lined with reusable canvas bags
We’d just arrived at the lodge after a few days trekking and camping in Satpura National Park, the only tiger reserve in India where safaris on foot are permitted. During those days too, I had been hard pressed to find evidence of that most ubiquitous and problematic of materials. And on the trek itself, our forest guides picked up plastic that had washed down the Denwa River into the park.
I was similarly impressed when, rafting up on the Ganga (Ganges) near Rishikesh some weeks later, our safety kayakers regularly fished plastic bottles from the water. “Twice a year, the rafting companies spend a day cleaning up the river and its banks,” Akshay Kumar told me. Akshay was one of the first operators on the river back in the ‘80s. He told me there were now over 300.
The longest and most revered river in India is now subject to a government-led initiative: The National Mission for Clean Ganga. “You wouldn’t believe what we collect,” Gaurav Chopra told me. Gaurav runs Cleantec, a business contracted to dredge up the flotsam and jetsam of our plastic-infested lives from the Ganga and other watercourses in India.
We all now know that clearly something has to be done about the over-use of plastic, a material that is in danger of burying our lands and seas under a shiny, crunchy and unrecyclable blanket. In fact, ‘single-use’ was chosen as the 2018 word of the year by Collins Dictionary.
India is like an old lover you can’t quite get out of your mind. Even after years apart, the intensity of the place holds you tight and you hope that circumstance might bring you together again. Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was well and truly in love, particularly with journeys through the Indian Himalayas.
The plastic ban is a huge vision for a huge nation with a huge problem—but at least it is a vision. Australia, my own country, doesn’t even have that.
And it was in that period I saw the inexorable march of plastic, thrown down with no regard as to where it would end up. Waterways became choked with the stuff. No-one shows off images of the Taj Mahal from across the oil-slick sludge of the Yamuna River, sludge held in by riverbanks of mounded plastic.
In 2008, I returned for a ski expedition and the problem had worsened, but at least moves were being made to stem the tide. In the state of Himachal Pradesh, plastic bags had been banned and all the market traders were using paper bags, many made from recycled newsprint. Perhaps though, as King Canute discovered, it was a tide of impossibility against a tsunami of plastic packaging.
Late last year, I was back in India for the first time in a decade. Only months before my visit, India had been the host country for UN World Environment Day and its 2018 theme of ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’.
On that day, the prime minster of India, Narendri Modi, announced that the country would ban all single-use plastics by 2022. A huge vision for a huge nation with a huge problem—but at least it is a vision. Australia, my own country, doesn’t even have that.
“Ah democracy! India is fast at making laws and slow in implementing them,” said Trib, our very erudite guide. I don’t doubt that India will miss its target either, but after the announcement, the Confederation of Indian Industry formed the ‘Unplastic’ initiative with 35 of India’s largest companies signing up. Time will tell how genuine their commitment is.
In many ways, recycling is the refuge of the non-committed—it is arguably an unnecessary use of unnecessary resources for often unnecessary products.
In the company of my old friend Mandip Singh Soin, a founder of the Eco Tourism Society of India, we sat down in the Delhi offices of the UN Environment Programme. “Already the beverage industry (think Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle) seem to have convinced the government that PET drink bottles are not ‘single-use’ because they can be recycled,” Jasleen Dhanota told us.
But of course, unlike glass, no plastics can be recycled into the same product they once were, only to a lower grade product. And in many ways, recycling is the refuge of the non-committed—it is arguably an unnecessary use of unnecessary resources for often unnecessary products.
Following the lead (or in some cases ahead of) the central government, various Indian states have brought in their own plastic bans. Maharashtra (which includes the mega city of Mumbai), Himachel Pradesh, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh have banned all or some of single-use bottles, bags, straws, picnicware and cups.
Signs now implore people to give up the plastic addiction and in many places I stayed during this most recent visit, I saw real efforts being made. Filtered water, not plastic water bottles in rooms or on tours, shampoo in ceramic pots, unlined bins …
But what can the visitor do to help India continue down the positive road they are taking? Firstly, never underestimate that you, the individual, are the most powerful agent of change.
Traveling with your own ‘good stuff’ bag of reusable bottle, cup, straw and spoon will reduce your impact. But you’re worried about the drinking water, aren’t you? Remember that in much of India as in so much of the world, filtered tap water is as good as if not better than what comes in that single-use plastic bottle you might have purchased.
It’s the bottled water industry that sews the seed of doubt for commercial reasons. As mentioned, many operators and hotels now offer highly filtered water. And if you are still concerned, travel with a Grayl water bottle or similar precautions. This magic device gives you drinking water free of all bacteria, viruses, chemicals and sediments in a matter of seconds.
In this past year, I found myself not only in India but in Tajikistan, Jordan, Southern Africa and various places in Europe. In that year, I safely drank not one single-use bottle of water.
Thanks for taking some responsibility India. Here’s wishing you luck.
Writer and environmentalist Huw Kingston has spent over 30 years undertaking long, human-powered journeys in wild places, and has long been involved campaigning against single-use plastics.