By Dr Urvashi Tandon
Having seen some horrific videos on the effects of plastic on the eco-system of the planet that we share with other living creatures and is not solely ours to monopolise, and having noted the rise in numbers of diseases such as cancer and other illnesses, I decided to understand more about the call to save the planet. It’s my own personal ‘bring your own coffee mug’ project.
Every day we wake up to new reports of how plastic damages the planet. An effort towards reconciliation has begun with several do-gooders and entrepreneurs working hard to either stop use of plastic or recycle it. A report says that unless we classify plastic as hazardous, we would end up abetting production and use of the material that is toxic to Mother Nature.
At a personal level, I started by enrolling for a workshop on Conscious Living.
Conscious Living, to my mind, means being aware of what you eat (put into your system) and buy (your immediate environment).
I started off by slashing the number of chemicals I was using – starting from what I eat to what I use in the form of toiletries and cosmetics. Small changes started happening around me. I have been using bamboo toothbrushes, homemade soaps and cold-pressed coconut oil, which I use as a moisturiser. I still have a long way to go!
I have spent a lot of money on various beauty treatments and clinics trying to fuel my vanity till good sense dawned on me when I started reading the chemicals on the labels. I wonder if we are messing up our ecosystem only to fuel the beauty industry, which is making us so dependent on them.
As regards plastic, we are far behind in terms of recycling and discouraging its use. I was not aware that the Styrofoam cups that we carry around for our coffee on-the-go are made up of expanded polystyrene. Of course, they have minimal plastic (5%), but used cups cannot be recycled as they are soiled with food or drink. (But Styrofoam itself can be compressed and recycled to manufacture products for use in homes.)
There is something to be said here for our age-old clay “kulhars” which are 100% bio-degradable but one is not certain about how clean these are (as pointed out by my educated friends). Though that is true, they do provide livelihood to traditional artisans. Maybe businesses could look into this as an opportunity while also finding a way to assure cleanliness and hygiene.
Sceptics like my friends can also carry their own beverage holders of which there are several branded designs. I decided to find out what people thought about this.
To my relief, I came across a number of people who are actively involved in spreading awareness. For instance, there’s a group of people trying to save Delhi’s Aravalli Biodiversity Park from partial destruction to facilitate further urbanisation. There are also people actively promoting the use of reusable cutlery and crockery in place of disposables at various eateries around Gurugram.
It is wonderful to see the government in action, too. Gurugram has started seeing change in the form of plastic waste being used in road-laying which should ensure longer durability. Hopefully, one such act will lead to more. There are universities like the Jamia Millia Islamia who are shredding soft plastic, mixing rag fibres and manufacturing mattresses for the homeless. Building affordable housing for the homeless is also on the cards.
The possibilities seem endless. All we need are more aware citizens who are willing to donate some time and energy and a little enthusiasm from the government.
Apart from improving the environment we live in, we can also create jobs for the economically disadvantaged. All the same, these efforts would only treat a small percentage of the plastic that has already been generated. In order to make a difference, we need to slow down production while increasing recycling of disposables.
It is heartening to note that the coffee giant Starbucks has taken an initiative and is planning to do away with plastic straws by 2020. They have also declared a three-month trial on charging extra for the use of disposable cups in the UK. In Australia, coffee is cheaper when served in reusable cups or if you bring your own.
On inquiring at Café Coffee Day outlets in Delhi, I found that most Indians still don’t give much thought to what they use when they order a takeaway coffee. The staff denied the use of personal cups/mugs by customers. There are no such incentives for such practices. The paper cups used for takeaways are paper in name as they also are lined with plastic in order to prevent the cup getting soggy and wet.
It is time that we as responsible citizens make a conscious effort to help our planet by making these little changes. Why leave it only to the NGOs and government organizations? Each one of us can make a difference.
Dr Urvashi Tandon is a medical officer and anaesthesiologist who worked in the Indian Navy.