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Clearing up plastic in India

Our blogger Alex Findlay’s observations on the subcontinent’s plastic crisis.

· lessplastic,zerowaste,Travel

I have recently spent a few weeks in India where the plastic problem is notorious. India - a fabulously beautiful country - is almost literally drowning under a tsunami of plastic - bottles, bags, parts, packaging... A staggering 60% of the plastic that ends up in our oceans is thought to come from India. It's everywhere and it's overwhelming, as is the sheer effort that is required to address it. This is a poorly sanitised country with a population of 1.2bn - many of whom struggle to survive every day, so understandably the plight of our oceans and the impact that plastic is having on the planet is not at the front of their minds. Currently, the main policy for controlling the tide is mandating that everyone must burn their rubbish - including plastic (there is no rubbish collection) - obviously the fumes are also incredibly bad for the environment, as well as people's health.

There are pockets of resistance to the plastic inundation which offer a glimmer of hope. Tourism, while an important source of economic growth, is one of the key causes of the over consumption of plastic and therefore must naturally lead the fight against it. I stayed in a few hotels which were doing their bit - notably by offering filtered water with which to replenish empty bottles, negating the need to buy a new bottle every few hours (tap water is undrinkable so many tourists and locals rely on bottled water - and when it's that hot you need at least a couple of litres a day). One (incidentally gorgeous) hotel, Abode in Mumbai, has fantastic ethical and green credentials, and one of its many brilliant initiatives was to provide their delicious-smelling shampoo, conditioner and shower gel in refillable stainless steel bottles. Such an easy way to make a difference (even though I was disappointed I couldn't swipe the toiletries!), as we noted in our first blog post about travelling.

There is a beautiful, picture perfect beach on the Keralan coast called Marari Beach - a beautiful strip of white sand, lined with coconut trees, that leads down to the sparkling waters of the Arabian Sea. Sadly, like so many other beaches in India and across the world, it is blighted by the regular fare of old bottles, plastic bags, food wrappers and other packaging. A committee of local hotels, guest houses and restaurants is taking matters into its own hands, galvanising the local community to do a big clear up and send all the rubbish to recycling plants. Done regularly, it will have a hugely positive impact on the sea, wildlife and the number of tourists flocking to a beach not marred by plastic detritus.

Another hero I saw in India was in the huge slum of Dharavi in Mumbai. On a tour (which was very well done by Reality Gives, with 80% of profits being invested into projects to help the Dharavi community) of the commercial area, we saw a man sitting in a little room, sorting through piles of rubbish. He sifted out all the plastic - including the plastic on wiring - and, after washing it, ground it down into tiny pellets that are purchased by other businesses, including car manufacturers, for them to create their products. This man earned a tiny 250 rupees (about £3) a day and lives without recognition, but he and others like him play such an important role in our fight against plastic.
Importantly, India's National Green Tribunal announced in January this year that it was banning single use plastic across the whole of the National Capital Territory area, which includes the capital, Delhi. This is in response to the burning of plastic waste and should help to improve air quality in a city whose residents breathe air that is 36 times more toxic than London's. This is a very exciting development which will hopefully spread across the country and have a dramatic impact on the volume of plastic India generates.
But there is so, so much more to be done. Indian government policy needs to change dramatically with regards to the environment - this is one of the world's most rapidly growing economies and with that comes responsibility to both the general public and the environment. The West - whose lifestyle and consumption is seen as an aspiration for many across the world - has a duty to support those developing countries and invest in systems and technologies which will make a difference. Finally, tourism and tourists must take some responsibility as well. We must be careful about what we consume and how we behave, and demonstrate to those at the forefront of the tourism industry that we prefer ecologically sound facilities and amenities - our tastes are noted and catered to so we really can make a difference.
Despite my best efforts I failed miserably to find filtered water and therefore relied far too heavily on bottled water on my travels. As penance, I am swearing off all plastic bottles and reusable coffee cups for the rest of the year (I'll post about my progress!) and would like to donate to a great cause that empowers communities to reduce, reuse and recycle - if anyone has any suggestions they would be gratefully received!

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