Wed, Jun 06, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Trio of unlikely heroes wage war on plastic


A rag picker collects plastic bags in an industrial area on the outskirts of Jammu, India, yesterday.

Photo: AP

For more than 25 years, Ram Nath has lived on the banks of the Yamuna River under a 19th-century iron bridge.

Each morning, the wiry man walks a few steps from his makeshift hut and enters the black, sludgy waters of one of India’s most polluted rivers. He is fishing for trash.

“This is the only work we have,” said the 40-year-old, sorting through a pile of plastic bottles, bags and cast-off electronics.

Hundreds of garbage collectors live on the Yamuna’s banks in New Delhi, making US$2 to US$4 per day recycling plastic waste collected from the river.

While Nath does not think of himself as an environmentalist, he is one of a handful of New Delhi residents waging war against the tsunami of plastic threatening to swamp India.

They include a ninth-grade student who convinces posh restaurants to give up plastic straws, and a businessman whose company makes plates and bowls from palm leaves.

India, which hosted UN World Environment Day yesterday, can use all the help it can get.

This year’s theme was “Beat Plastic Pollution.”

With more than 15 million people, New Delhi and its surrounding cities produce an estimated 17,000 tonnes of trash daily, according to Indian officials and environmentalists.

That requires immense dumps, hills of stinking trash that measure up to 50m.

Last year, two people were killed when a large part of one of the city’s dumps crashed down onto them.

“All these products which we use because of convenience take many hundreds of years” to even partially decompose, said Chitra Mukherjee, an environmental expert and head of operations at Chintan.

Mukherjee, who has spent years raising awareness and creating localized efforts to curb plastic pollution, credits the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government for making waste management and pollution a more serious issue.

“It is a collaborative effort between not only bureaucrats, but researchers, environmentalists who have been brought on board to make some progressive policies,” she said.

However, policy and impact can mean different things. Like the repeated bans in New Delhi on using thin plastic bags.

The latest regulation came with a hefty US$75 fine, yet a trip to nearly any shop in New Delhi makes clear how widely the ban is flouted.

Amardeep Bardhan believes he can make a difference.

His company, Prakritii, makes plates and bowls from the leaves of south India’s areca palm trees.

The plates and bowls, which have the feel of thick paper plates, biodegrade in seven to 10 days, he said.

The company does not harvest any palm trees, but waits for the leaves to fall to the ground.

“In this entire process, we are not harming the environment,” Bardhan said. “We are generating something from the waste, people are loving it, and then it goes back as a waste.”

While Prakritii initially made most of its income from exports to Europe and the US, Bardhan said the market for eco-friendly products is growing in India, especially among younger people who value quality over price.

His company generates more than US$150,000 in revenue each year.

In places, the trend is growing.

Some fancy restaurants in and around New Delhi are doing away with plastic straws and replacing them with paper straws.

That is largely because of Aditya Mukarji, a student who launched his campaign after seeing a video of two veterinarians trying to remove a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose.

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