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Stories from an Indian Millennial

This Environment Day: On how am I trying to beat plastic pollution and you can too

An old plastic fishing net snares a loggerhead turtle in the Mediterranean off Spain. The turtle could stretch its neck above water to breathe but would have died had the photographer not freed it. Source: National Geographic

‘In the time it takes Hardik Pandya to bowl an over in a cricket match, four garbage trucks worth of plastic get dumped into the ocean.'

Today on 5th June 2018, The world is celebrating Environment day. The theme for this year is to beat plastic pollution. However, there is less to celebrate but more to ponder over. This year, India is hosting world environment day which means we’ll be seeing a lot of events, talks, and TV debates. But when the night falls, most of us will be back to our old lives and old habits. In the real sense, we should everyday organize events such as not asking for bottled water in the restaurant or carrying a cloth-made shopping bag. Then only we can truly celebrate our environment and our mother nature.

I am writing this post to share the steps I am taking to make more conscious and less plastic dominated choices in everyday life. By the end of it, either I will hopefully be able to encourage you to make some more efforts of your own or you are going to enlighten me on some more innovative ways to beat plastic pollution. Either way, we will together take a step in redeeming the damage we have done to mother nature.

Apart from everyday life, it's during traveling that we generate major plastic waste. Here are the few things I did to minimize my plastic use, during my recent trip to Amritsar and Dharamshala. First, we carried our own water bottle and filled it before boarding flight. This way, we didn’t have to use inflight water bottles. Imagine, If everyone didn't use inflight bottles, 400 bottles worth of garbage could have been saved on a single return trip. That’s a lot! That's why I think Indigo Airline's act of serving water in paper cups is quite admirable.

Trivia: Do you know Mumbai airport sees one flight land or take off every 65 secs? Just imagine the exponential impact we can create with one small green good deed!

Plastic bottles choke the Cibeles fountain, outside city hall in central Madrid. An art collective called Luzinterruptus filled this and two other Madrid fountains with 60,000 discarded bottles last fall as a way of calling attention to the environmental impact of disposable plastics. Source: National Geographic

When we stepped out to explore the destinations, we refilled our bottle wherever and whenever possible. In fact, a shopkeeper insisted we use his water cooler to refill our bottle. He also mentioned as to how he lets the other shopkeepers fill water from his cooler and thus save plastic. Who says you can’t make a difference on your own! Every little act helps.

However, I will be honest. We couldn’t prevent buying a bottle altogether, especially in the hot weather of Amritsar. But we were able to save 7-8 bottles on an 8-day trip. Next time, I hope to eliminate buying bottled water altogether.

As we visited Amritsar markets for beautiful phulkari work and handcrafted juttis, we carried a couple of shopping bags with us. This way we didn’t have to take plastic bags along with our purchases. Anyway these shopping bags get dumped as soon as we reach home, right? So why create more waste! Next time you go shopping, please try it. Yes, you won't be able to show off the brands to fellow shoppers but do they anyway care?

Trivia: Do you know most plastics do not biodegrade. Instead, they slowly break down into smaller fragments known as microplastics. These small fragments can then enter our food chain from the fish we eat, the milk we drink and packaged food we buy.

 Source: National Geographic
Another way we were able to ditch plastic was by asking for regular water at restaurants and having our drinks the slurp way. No straws needed!  Back home in Mumbai, I was pleasantly surprised to find paper made straw at Busago, a restaurant we frequent.
However, if you buy bottled water for hygiene, here is a fact for you. As per studies, 90 percent of bottled water and 83 percent of tap water contain plastic particles. Also if you cannot drink the water from a restaurant, should you really be having food there? There is always an option to carry your own water.

These were some of the ways to reduce plastic use during traveling. There are some other small changes I have been making to minimize plastic use in daily life. Let's talk about them.

When I do my groceries, I always carry a cloth bag. I buy fresh vegetables from small vendors and not plastic packed ones from the supermarket. Now, you too know about microplastics, right? Sadly, I find a lot of educated people asking vendors for separate plastics bags for different veggies. It doesn't take even a minute to segregate vegetables back at home.
However, if you don't find cloth bags that cool, why not buy a nice funky one? Recently, a friend told me that her mother has converted all old clothes into pretty bags. These bags now serve as parting gifts to anyone who visits their house. Isn't that a cool idea?

Green Yatra has been doing a great initiative where they buy dry and e-waste in exchange for cloth bags. Read about them here.

Tip: Keep a couple of bags each, in your car, purse, bike, kitchen or near the door. This way you won’t have any reason to forget the bag every time you go shopping.

Whenever I go to Starbucks, I don’t order take away. This way I save a plastic cup, a plastic lid, and a straw on every single visit. That’s a lot of single-use plastic, isn’t it? Next time you visit, can you take some time out to order ‘having here’ coffee. I know, it won’t be Instagram worthy ‘having your name misspelled again’ moment. But it would be a conscious one. Small acts matter. Now, don’t make me show you the multiplied impact again.

Trivia: The most common single-use plastics found in the environment are, in order of magnitude, cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags, and foam take-away containers.

I have also started to phase out plastic containers in my kitchen, especially the take out ones that keep lingering on. Another menace of packing industry that has crept into our lives is the thin plastic films used for sealing the food boxes. I personally don’t like to use them. But if for you, there is no other option, it’s better to buy the steel boxes with plastic seal. At least you will be using it longer.

Also, have you been using those beaded face washes or scrubs? I have started saying no to these beaded beauty products. They contain microplastic beads which then get into our ocean and thus to our marine life. I don't think being a vegetarian can help us. Microplastic is everywhere. While these are some of the changes I have made, I also want to share what I plan to do next.

The ‘take away’ food problem: When we order food delivery, it’s not just the food that gets delivered. There are a lot of plastic parts along with it, be it a small sachet or the container itself. This again is single-use plastic. I usually am not so much of a takeaway person. But I plan to do following things, next time I order take away food.

1. Ask the restaurant if they have any plastic-free option. Not biodegradable plastic but only non-plastic. I know, what they would answer right now. But if each of us could start asking, I bet we can create a movement and push them to use environmentally friendly alternatives.

2. I usually avoid plastic culinary, but now I will return it all together for takeaway. This is the least we all can do. This birthday, my cake was from Theobroma. The knife that came with it was made of the ice cream stick wood. I wondered, how thoughtful of them! I know it’s not an ideal solution. But you can still grow several trees in a hundred year and not degrade a plastic knife.

3. In general, I will order less takeaway and just go and eat at the restaurant itself.

Trivia: Majority of biodegradable plastics only biodegrade under high temperatures. These conditions are met in incineration plants but rarely in the natural environment. Only nine percent of the nine billion tonnes of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled.

Reality closer home: River Ganga which provides drinking water to ~40% of India's population. Source: Internet

While it’s important to reduce plastic usage, at the same time it’s also important to not put pressure on trees. Here are some small things I have been doing apart from the conventional ways, to save paper. Do try them at home ;)

There is this interesting habit I picked up from a friend. Every time I swipe my card, I ask not to print the customer copy. We anyway end up throwing it the moment we get it. Let me clarify. Getting a bill is your right and in fact, you should do it as it prevents retailers from doing a tax fraud. But asking for a customer copy is optional. I have been doing it for a couple of years now. So next time you swipe your card, tell them ‘no customer copy please’!

Also in the digital world of today where everyone carries a smartphone, who needs to print their flight tickets? Unless required for immigration process, I can’t remember when I last printed a ticket, especially for domestic flights.

These are some of the steps I am taking to make sure I reduce my share of the carbon footprint on mother nature. I realize that it’s only a beginning. So let’s take these small steps together. Who knows one day it can become one giant leap to restoring our beautiful planet.

If you have been applying some brilliant methods of your own to beat plastic pollution, do leave me a comment below. I am eager to know what your ideas are and how I can implement them in my life.  

*Most of the data is sourced from 'The State of Plastic' report by United Nations. If you are interested in further reading, download the full report here.

I am a writer by passion, a petroleum engineer by accident and a proud Indian by origin. Follow my stories on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram!