Living with a ban on plastic: Tips from P Natarajan, Namma Ooru Foundation

In view of the upcoming plastic ban in the city, environmentalist P Natarajan explains the role of the government, NGOs and the people in ensuring successful implementation and the steps to be taken.

Come January 1, 2019, the Tamil Nadu government will implement a blanket ban on single use plastic, an unprecedented move in the state, aimed at protecting the environment. Plastic ban has been at the centre of discussion among many citizens who are still confused and worried about life sans plastic. The state government is continuously reminding people about the ban through newspaper ads, but has failed to provide a concrete road map on the implementation of the ban or the alternatives to be adopted.

Several  organisations, especially NGOs, have on the other hand been on the field to sensitise the general public about this issue.  We spoke to P Natarajan, the founder of Namma Ooru Foundation, an organisation that focuses on waste management among several other environmental causes, on the gaps that need to be addressed around the upcoming plastic ban, and Namma Ooru’s crusade to make it a success.

P Natarajan, founder, Namma Ooru Foundation

Of the 5000 tonnes of garbage generated by Chennai every day, how much would be plastic?

Single use and reusable plastic accounts for 1,250 tonnes (25 percent) of the total waste generated by Chennai every day. 60 percent of our daily waste is organic, while 10 per cent is biomedical waste and 5 % is electronic waste.

Do you think the upcoming ban would reduce the burden on the environment?

The ban is a welcome move as it is facilitating discussion among citizens on the harmful effects of plastic. The state government should adopt a multi-pronged approach to curb plastic manufacturing as well as to sensitise people about plastic. For starters, there should be a 100% ban on plastic in all the government offices; this would set an example for the rest.  Like any other project, execution is important and if it is well done, it will be a blessing, especially for our plastic-polluted water bodies.

The TN government had six months to formulate a plan for the implementation of the plastic ban. Do you think enough has been done?

The main challenge is to change the common man’s notion that the ban is ‘senseless.’ People must be educated about the perils of plastic and convinced about easily available alternatives such as areca palm and bagasse (sugarcane residue) products. For example, one can always use a metal or glass bottle to carry water, rather than repeatedly buy water in a plastic bottle.

Such steps towards proper education are absent from the state government’s side and a lot of questions about the ban remain unanswered. For example, what should citizens do with the plastic that they already have? Would there be a collection point at the ward level? Would the accumulated plastic be recycled? Or will it be dumped at a landfill?

What is the ideal disposal mechanism for the eco-friendly plastic alternatives that you’ve mentioned?

Areca and bagasse products are more expensive than plastic, but they are eco-friendly and can withstand heat. Since it is pointless to send them to the landfills, citizens should simply process them in their backyards through composting pits or khambas. If torn and soaked, they would degrade within a year, unlike plastic which cannot be composted, and has to be incinerated which inevitably pollutes the air.

What is the role of organisations such as Namma Ooru Foundation in ensuring the success of the imminent plastic ban?

The first responsibility of organisations such as ours is that of creating awareness among the general public. Plastic is durable, but has to be used judiciously — this point should be etched in citizens’ minds.  We can use recyclables such as buckets and mugs, but why not carry a cloth bag to the market to reduce plastic usage?

Do awareness sessions really help change citizens’ mindset as far as waste segregation and plastic reuse is concerned? 

Yes. Change can be witnessed if citizens are provided with apt and viable options. In a group, at least 60 percent would change immediately, if they are given practical alternatives. We can expect 90% compliance in six months.

This ban will hit thousands of small and medium scale plastic manufacturers. What about their livelihood alternatives?

There will be some loss, but we should understand that such a ban is the need of the hour, if we want to save the planet for future generations. There is a huge market for eco-friendly packaging. On the other hand, the central government is also known to have given out loans for small and medium start-ups looking to manufacture biodegradable plastic-alternatives through schemes such as Mudra.

Now that the plastic ban is around the corner, can we say that we are in a safe, or soon-to-be-safe, zone?

No, we have a long way to go. The Government has not provided alternatives for polypropylene and other multi-layered packaging that is commonly used for chips and other similar food provisions. Electronic waste that reaches unauthorised scrap dealers and eventually the landfills also remains a threat to the environment. Rather than announcing a piecemeal ban on just plastic, the Chief Minister should have reiterated the importance of source segregation and looked at holistic waste management, including that of e-waste.

What measures should citizens adopt to make Chennai a cleaner, environmentally resilient city?

A four-R mantra — Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle — should be adopted by each and every citizen. Refuse taking single use plastic, reduce consumption by choosing only necessary plastics and reuse them properly. Recycling is the last option as it is also hazardous to the nature. The people of the city are the important stakeholders in terms of plastic consumption as well as its impact, and they have to be on board with the ban, to make the city cleaner and sustainable.

Since, you talk about re-cycling, what are the options available for a Chennaiite to recycle plastic?

Citizens can drop off the reusable plastic at the scrap shops that are present in every street corner of Chennai. These middle men accumulate the plastic and send it to the recycling units. Chennai Corporation claims that the conservancy staff has been collecting recyclables every Wednesday,but this is consistently followed in only a few localities of Chennai. So, the best option is to rely on scrap dealers and recyclers, whose livelihood depends on this.

So, would you blame the people for the waste crisis that we see in the city — or the corporation, or both?

If asked to grade, I would first blame the Corporation for not having the conviction to go the last mile. Mandatory source segregation implemented by Chennai Corporation a year ago lies in the doldrums. They could have enforced and implemented source segregation effectively in at least one ward to motivate others.

Of course, citizens are also guilty, as they have not really stepped up their segregation efforts. We need to realise that this is no longer someone else’s problem, it is now everyone’s problem.

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