Thursday, June 18, 2015

3rd July International Plastic Bag Free Day

International Plastic Bag Free Day 
(updated from the article published in Himali Darpan 2014)
Plastic age is what we live in is a common point of conversation in the Darjeeling Hills. Along with it also comes the discussion how this age is not great as the previous age in terms of longevity and health. This is a recognition of challenges we face with this plastic age. "In India 4 million tonnes of plastic is used annually; with plastic or polythene bags being a major part. The toxic constituents and non-biodegradable nature of plastic bags make it visibly one of the most serious concerns for the environment." (

Single use plastic bag - a common feature in our lives
“Plastic carrybags represents a negative attitude to life and nature. It makes people believe “everything is disposable” and “use and throw” is possible. This is unsustainable and criminal. It is a contamination not only to the nature and our culture of sharing and caring.” Shibu Nair, (Thanal

Plastic bags in most instances are a single use product with an extremely short usage time and it makes no sense to make it from a precious finite crude oil resource. Internationally, on an average a plastic bag is used for just 25 minutes. ( Thus use of plastic bags is extremely unfair on the future generations especially when the costs of the bags are externalised in that producers do not take responsibility of the product beyond the retail outlet.  

Now that I have blamed the producers, what of our behaviour and attitude towards plastic bags. We know that it is not good yet are always demanding a plastic bag when we go shopping. It is a common scenario to buy milk in plastic bags, where did our milk cans disappear? The story does not end with our demand, how do we dispose the plastic bag: dump it in the waste vat, roll it down the hill or burn it. The waste vat invariably ends up down the hill and down the hill means clogging jhoras and contributing towards landslides. Some of them end up in the soil, destabilising it, harming precious agricultural land and also entering our food chain. Burning is not a solution, toxic carcinogenic chemical are released which becomes a part of the air we breathe.  This is not how we should be treating our living environment. For a stark documented story of a garbage slide check out the Alaichikhop, Kalimpong 2008 disaster on the Save the Hills blog -

Plastic bag discussions always bring up the topic of 'Ban'. We have seen a number of 'Bans on use of plastic bags in Darjeeling' a couple of times from the Darjeeling Municipality and then the Darjeeling Police. The lesson learnt from it is that 'Ban' is just one part of the larger solution and in isolation is not as effective as it was thought to be. A congruence of community awareness and initiatives makes the ban successful as has been the experience in Darjeeling, Sikkim and Delhi. "Plastic ban - Who Cares New Delhi, 23 December 2014,: It‘s really shocking that in spite of plastic being banned in many states/UTs, including Delhi,  it’s rampantly used by local shopkeepers, fruit sellers, by branded shop owners, and most of all, by the common people." ( the Toxics Link study in Delhi is quoted in the Times of India, "99% city veggie sellers use plastic bags Almost 99% of vegetable and fruit vendors, and 95% of meat and fish vendors contacted during the survey were using plastic bags. The usage was high even among small food joints and dhabas (82%). Out of 834 respondents who were interviewed, 78% of the consumers said they preferred using plastic bags. Even worse, 333 users said they use and throw plastic bags, only 75 said they try to reuse." ( 

Non-woven PP Bag or plainly Plastic Bag
In addition to all the reasons for not using the plastic bag is that many of the bags we use are not food grade which means we should not put our food into it as it contaminates our food. With ban on plastic bags, we see a wave of non woven PP(polypropelene) bags in the Darjeeling and Sikkim Himalaya. The non woven PP bag looks like cloth but do note that this is also plastic and has the same harmful effects. Most people are under the impression that non woven PP bags are made of cloth and manufacturers are also pushing this idea and claiming it disintegrates easily and is eco-friendly and it does not clog drains as it is porous. On the contrary it is worse as it tears up more quickly than ordinary plastic bags so recovery is more difficult. The Delhi High Court's Judgment delivered on: 28.08.2009 is explicit "In the present case, the admitted position is that the non-woven bags comprise of 98.3% polypropylene. Therefore, the conclusion is simple that the end product is nothing but plastic. Since the products manufactured by the petitioner are admittedly bags, they would fall within the expression “plastic bags”. In continuation the Delhi High Court explains, "In any event, the petitioner‟s non-woven polypropylene bags would be covered in the expression “all kinds of plastic bags” as appearing in paragraph 2 of the said notification. Since the non-woven bags are admittedly not bio-degradable, they cannot be used at other places in Delhi also in view of paragraph 3 of the notification dated 07.01.2009. The argument that the petitioner‟s product is porous and that water can pass through the same is of no consequence because that is not the consideration which is to be taken into account while construing the notification dated 07.01.2009. Paragraph 2 of the said notification, as already indicated above, refers to “all kinds” of plastic bags. Once the petitioner‟s product falls within the ambit of “plastic bags”, it is immaterial as to whether it is porous or whether it is a WP(C) 8120/09 Page No. 13 of 13 textile. The petitioner‟s argument that non-woven polypropylene bags are an alternative to plastic bags also does not appeal to us. The nonwoven polypropylene bags are plastic bags in themselves and, therefore, they cannot be a substitute for plastic bags as suggested by the learned counsel for the petitioner." We need to include non-woven PP bags in the 'ban' and stop its use. 

“There are some environmental problems that are hard to solve, that involve complex economic and social trade offs. The problem of disposable plastic bags is not one of these. It’s simple – just get rid of them. We don’t need them and they aren’t worth the massive problems they cause. There are easy replacements that are better for public health, the environment and the economy.” Annie Leonard The Story of Stuff

So all it requires of us is to say NO. No to plastic bags and use alternatives like jute bags, cloth bags, paper bags, milk cans which we used to use just a few years ago. Just this action means that our lives and the lives of the future generations are lived in fullness. It also means that a multitude of living beings in the rivers, seas and oceans have a healthy environment.

Now one might wonder why this fixation on plastic bags. Thin film plastic bags are the least needed product in our lives. For such a thin and light product the environmental damage is tremendous. True one does talk of recycling but where is the recycling chain? Recycling also takes energy which means pollution. Incidentally, recycling does not give us the same quality product but it downcycles it into an inferior product. Also as it is thin and lightweight it takes ages before we reach a point where it makes sense for kabadiwalas to recover it.

So all we need to say is No to Plastic Bags and also tell others about it too in order our lives and the lives of our children become safer.  

On 3rd July International Plastic Bag Free Day let us commit to stop using plastic bags not just for the day but for the rest of our lives and to proactively engage with our families, friends, peers, co-workers and communities and do away with plastic bags.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care." – World Environment Day 2015

"Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care."
World Environment Day 2015

‘The World Environment Day 5 June 2015 theme is "Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care." The well-being of humanity, the environment, and the functioning of the economy, ultimately depend upon the responsible management of the planet’s natural resources. And yet, evidence is building that people are consuming far more natural resources than what the planet can sustainably provide. By 2050, if current consumption and production patterns remain the same and with a rising population expected to reach 9.6 billion, we will need three planets to sustain our ways of living and consumption.’ (
Typical Rural Shop and the diversity of products and packaging

Increasing waste an outcome of our consumption

A direct outcome of our consumption patterns is the ever increasing waste. With the rapid change in the production and consumption patterns that we are experiencing today the quantity of waste has gone up dramatically.  Along with this quantity of waste the type of waste has also changed tremendously. Packaging is no longer a brown paper bag which used to be filled up from a jute sack but a riot of colours in multi-layered packaging material of plastic, paper and metal. The packets are also getting smaller and smaller with miniscule amounts of product inside the packet. Many-a-times these packets are put into further packets and then poly-bags before it is handed out to the consumer. At this juncture, we would like to point to our 3rd July 2014 article on plastic bag free day where we have presented the scenario of non-woven PP(polypropelene) bag that is being used in the Darjeeling and Sikkim hills are plastic and have the same if not more harm to our environmental health.

Complex packaging materials with no treatment solutions

Materials like metalised plastic, tetra-packs, plastic and batteries cannot be managed with existing practices of burying, rolling downhill and burning as they contaminate the environment and have serious health implications with carcinogens(cancer causing), endocrine disruptors, allergens and other toxic chemicals being released and eventually entering our food chain, the air we breathe and the water we drink. For many materials we use today, there are no sustainable solutions of waste management except for reduction of its use.
The Dumping Chute where we officially dump our waste
in Darjeeling Town

What do we do with our waste?

For us living on the top of a hill, it is easy not to think about our waste as we just roll it down the hill. That is what we have been doing since our towns got established. The practice was acceptable to a certain extent since most of the waste was bio—degradable, but not anymore, as only 70% of our waste is bio-degradable. To make matter worse, our waste is not segregated before rolling down the hill making our water ways and hill-sides slopes of waste. Not only do they have environmental health implications of also possible causes of landslides and degradation of prime agricultural land. The pile up of unsegregated waste burns regularly contaminating the air we breathe as well as contributing to climate change.
‘Consuming with care means living within planetary boundaries to ensure a healthy future where our dreams can be realized.’ ( Consuming with care means recognizing the waste we produce and taking responsibility of it.

The time is now that we bring about a change in our society, ourselves, our families, our attitudes and behavior. Bring about a change in the way we manage our waste. Why? Because the quantity and type of waste has gone through a dramatic change in the past few years of our existence. ‘Darjeeling Municipality today produces between 30 to 45 metric tonnes of waste daily’.  Yet, our attitude and behavior is still: sweep it away; roll it downhill, bury it or burn it and blame others. The time is now to take responsibility of our waste because if we do not we might not have a tomorrow.  
Dumping Chute Burns 
“Contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste”. Chief Seattle 1854

We need to be responsible of our waste

No longer can we take pride in our queen of the hills being clean and green – a health sanatorium. Our city street corners and jhoras are clogged with piles of waste with serious environmental health implications. This serious issue of solid waste has spread to smaller towns and rural communities too.

Writing on the Wall says it all (site no longer exists in this fashion) 
Solid waste management solutions are a combination of actions which are based on attitudinal and behavioural change of responsibility, reduction of waste and sound technological solutions based on the micro situation and community participation. It starts from the all important ‘I choose to be responsible’.

Bio-degradable waste

Bio-degradable waste or the waste that naturally degrades like vegetable wastes can be composted at a family level or at a community level. Composting is a natural process of converting bio-degradable material into rich manure. (There are many organizations with skills promoting composting and in our future articles we will focus on composting techniques as well as urban gardening) At a community level one can use biodegradable waste to generate bio-gas for heat or electricity. The sludge from the bio-gas can be further composted. Composting is one of the best ways to manage our wastes and convert into rich manure for our gardening needs. Adoption of composting means that 70% of our waste issues are addressed.

Vermicomposting of biodegradable waste

Composting Units -
Where possible, biodegradable waste can be linked with farmers who will use it for livestock food. This linkage is key to ensure the large amount of food waste that is generated by the hospitality industry. Food waste from the hospitality industry is prime food for piggery.

Non Bio-degradable waste

Once we have dealt with bio-degradable, non-biodegradable waste becomes a bit complex to handle with no perfect and ready-made solutions. This is where the reduction in waste production is so important. Reducing waste means less waste to start with so less to deal with as an end product of our consumption process. This means the analysis of our consumption patterns and making conscious choices of reduction. Example not having gutka and having paan means that we do not add metalized plastic(gutka packaging) into the waste stream. Carrying a milk can and buying milk in it would mean atleast one plastic pouch less a day. Eating aloo dum without any other packaged food means less metalized plastic in the waste stream. Having fresh juice or milk means that much less tetrapacks. Buying shampoos, oil, paste in the largest container not only makes economic sense but reduced packaging material. Reduce comes attached to refuse. Carrying your own water-bottle, mug and plate means never having to use throw-away cutlery many of which are plastic and some not even food grade. Deciding to eat as much as possible non-packaged food reduces waste as well as supports the much needed local economy. This also impacts in reducing carbon footprint as local food travels shorter distances thus consumes less oil to travel from production point to consumption. The list is limited by our own creativity.

Reusing a product is part of our culture which we need to continue practicing especially in the onslaught of consumerism where we are encouraged to buy and buy. Buying a product for its durability is a value that is more than common sense from the waste perspective. Repairing and reusing is also an important part of our culture to resist the throw-away society we are progressing towards.

Recycling is the last option in waste management with the recognition that recycling has a cost. The product needs to be collected, transported and recycled, all of which requires energy which comes from the precious non-renewable oil. It also must be noted that there are limits to recycling too, plastics degrades in quality at each recycling cycle reducing is utility possibilities. There is more and more acceptance of the fact that there is actually no recycling as you usually do not get the same product post recycling and the more appropriate term would be downcyling or going down in quality and utility.

Yet the potential of recycling is yet to be realized in the Darjeeling Hills. All recycling happens through the informal chain and collected by the kabadiwallas and ragpickers. Most extraction for recycling happens after we thrash our waste. How good it would be if all of us segregate our waste at our homes and hand over our recyclables directly to the kabadiwalla who provide us such good environmental service. Segregation at source is the first step towards being a responsible person and storage at source is a matter of mental space rather than a physical space. The attitudinal change needs to come in the way we view the kabadiwallas, rag pickers and other waste managers. At an administrative level organized linkage to recycling would not only bring about a cleaner Darjeeling Hills but become an income source.

Within the discussion of waste management emerging challenges are bio-medical waste and electronic waste. Some of these wastes just have to be stored with a hope that one day solutions will emerge.

People's Participation

Enhancing people’s participation is critical to having a good waste management system. Community participation in awareness, segregation at source, collection, treatment and linkage to recycling makes the process efficient, accountable and a source of livelihood. Samaj play an important to evolve social rules on littering and improved waste management. There are a number of examples of samaj in Darjeeling who have decided not to use throw away plates and cups at their gatherings. Like-wise there are countless examples from Sikkim where communities have decided not to use bottled water; throw away utensils and packaged noodles. A number of samaj in Darjeeling have organized themselves to collect waste from door to door on a miniscule fee. These initiatives demonstrate the ample potential to enhance community participation in waste management. Navin Sewa Samity from Harsing and Gram Mitra Sangh from Yangkhoo Busties has decided not to use any use and throw plastic and paper utensils in any of their activities and decisions like these need to be emulated.  

PET Bottles - the pile-up and also link to unorganised recycling  
Waste and tourism

Darjeeling is a very popular tourist destination and along with tourists comes resource pressures including waste. As mentioned earlier Darjeeling town produces 15 metric tonnes more waste in the peak tourist season. Disaggregating this data further, our organizational study in 2012 showed that from 7 major suppliers of Darjeeling Town, in the tourist season 32520 bottles and during the off season 15000 bottles of packaged water per month is sold. What happens to these bottles after use is anyone’s guess: most are just thrashed and some are recovered by kabadiwallas and ragpickers. One must also note that the data does not include other fizzy drinks and also how the water bottles have changed dimensions to smaller versions in the recent times. Tourist spots in mountainous regions are in sacred and biodiversity rich areas; with the lack of waste management, these tourist spots are also becoming centres of non-biodegradable waste. A point to stress the case is that one views the sunrise in Tiger Hill and then views the waste after it. Touristic destination like Darjeeling have to factor waste into the tourism industry and address the issue of waste to continue the industry as well as for environmental health. Tourist destinations in Sikkim like Tsongmo has banned the use of packaged noodles and Lachen has banned bottled water and these are lessons we need to work towards. Alternatives are also being promoted with safe water points in Lachen, Ladakh and Goa, why can we not do it in Darjeeling. Infrastructure for waste catering to tourists must be integrated in an improved system in the Darjeeling Hills.

Mainstreaming waste in our everyday lives

Ultimately there is need for mainstreaming of waste into our everyday lives. There is a need for existing information on waste to converted to action and education institutions, religious organizations needs to play key roles as change makers. A Rimpoche in Bhutan has taken upon himself to promote reduction of waste and all his followers have been instructed not to bring packaged food when seeking his blessings. Likewise they have been instructed to bring their own plate and mugs for food which is all non-packaged food. A number of schools in Darjeeling do not allow packaged food in the school premises. Such exemplary actions need to become everyday life.

Mainstreaming also means converging different walks of life to incorporate proper waste management in our lives. This includes events in our lives. If all our events do not use flex, bottled water, packaged food and juices and throw-away utensils there would be that much less waste in our beloved hills. Our events would continue to be fruitful but would generate less waste, waste that we do not need and can reduce. Its indirect benefits would be expanded local livelihood options.

So the time is now where we make these attitude and behavioural changes that will make Darjeeling truly cleaner and we truly become global citizens where our actions do not harm others and it starts with ‘I choose to be responsible’. Where we ensure the "Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care."