Plastic Meltdown

Today I hit boiling point. Properly, after one year and four days in India. Yes it’s a bit dirty here, and there are many other minor frustrations, but today, all I could see was not just dirt, but Godawful filth. Everywhere I looked. It’s because of the plastics thing we are working on in the library… we started with looking at environmental damage to marine life as part of Underwater month, but moved swiftly into cows eating plastic bags to get at the veg peelings inside them. The more research I do, the more appalled and disgusted I am at what the apparent majority of Indians are doing to themselves and their country… its awash with plastic litter, everywhere except inside their homes and businesses, temples (well, most of them but some of them are filthy too), schools etc. Outside, anything goes. I ducked to avoid spit walking home today, a guy came out of his shop above the level of the pavement and spat. Take that passers-by. FFS!

I have said before that one of my abiding memories of India when I leave will be that there is always someone sweeping something somewhere wherever you go. It’s actually quite a pleasant thing, a sound you grow very accustomed to, and I personally quite enjoy my three or four daily sweeps in the library with a soft, handmade broom of dried grasses. It’s soothing. But despite this constant sweeping motion, the only time you can walk along a stretch of road and not see an ebb tide of empty water pouches, torn brightly coloured sachets, plastic pan wrappers and plastic chai cups and the rest of it is if you follow the sweeper closely and don’t look anywhere except at your feet. Or a politician is visiting town. Make sure you view any body of water, or the Sabarmati River, from an angle that means the sun is reflecting off it, that way you won’t see the crap floating in it, and lining its edges. Hold your breath crossing the stream on the way into the Tekra. It reeks. And for heavens sake don’t imagine you can avoid seeing swathes of torn and flapping plastic everywhere by looking up into the trees because both they and the power lines and anything else up there are dense with torn kites and coloured kite string from the Kite Festival, plus the lanterns they flew after dark which clearly were going to come down somewhere when the flame died. Again, paper kites and lanterns – no problem really, but most of these are thin coloured plastic, and there are also the faded remains that were not blown or washed away in monsoon from last year, and the year before for all I know – only out in the countryside do you see a clean tree, or maybe places like the Ashram or Lawgarden. What is wrong with these people!

I guess up until the advent of plastic, all these things were biodegradable and chuckable. Chai was served in small earthenware bowls to be smashed on the ground after use. Pan was wrapped in a leaf – the guy I buy fags from does this occasionally still, but more often its a square of very thin plastic. Kite’s were paper, string was string. Sachets didn’t exist, and if you did buy something tiny it would have been sold in a twist of paper; tomato sauce came from a big bottle, not one of those plastic single serve shitty little things that are such a nuisance anyway, and no-one had dreamt of packaged water. There are covered earthenware pots of water with a dipper on top around as you walk along the street, outside businesses, temples, and sometimes houses, for people to help themselves from, and although, naturally, a non native digestive system does well to distrust them, they were always there, with the dipper to drink from. (Hence I  imagine stems the admirable Indian art of accurately pouring your drink into your mouth without your lips touching the vessel.)  Plastic water bottles by the way are not an issue at all, you barely see them because they are valuable to the rag pickers. So the habit of just dropping stuff wasn’t such a bad one, it was all organic, and the seekers swept and burnt it… exactly the same as they do now with the plastic, which is revolting. And not a solution in terms of removing it.

There is always a film of greasy black dust on everything here, and that includes your skin, clothes, hair, the inside of your nose and your lungs as well I guess. Traffic fumes, and these awful smouldering little fires of debris along the roads, cooking fires in the slums of wood or dried dung. And it has to be a toxicologists smorgasbord, and a lot of it is down to plastic.

And then there’s the cows. The poor bloody things, nominally a holy and sacred animal to Hindu’s living in a country thats 80% Hindu, you’d think they had it made, and to see the way they absolutely dominate the traffic – well, on the surface every things just fine for your average Ahmedabad heifer out for a rush hour stroll on Ring Road. Sadly, look closer. That cow is not grazing on grass, she gets shoo-ed out of anywhere grassy like a park, or even waste ground near the apartment I used to live in. She eats peoples garbage. She forages like the dogs, the cats, and the monkeys, on the scraps the people have thrown out. This would have been fine pre plastic, and to be fair, I do see some of the women in my neighbourhood taking their scraps over to the dumpsite (open, on a street corner) in a bucket, or wrapped in newspaper, and emptying them out for the cows. But the majority neatly package their scraps in the very thin green plastic bags the market vendors sell their fruit and veg in, sometimes tying the top up in a tidy little bundle before gaily tossing it on the heap. So the cows have learnt to shake and tug at the bags to get at the scraps, but they are not always successful and she ends up eating the whole bag in her attempt to reach the food inside. Because she is starving. Her brain is telling her so even though her stomach is not. Because her rumen stomach is already full of such plastic, preventing her from consuming and digesting sufficient food to survive. That rounded belly is full of plastic… look at her haunches for the true story. They are dying a slow, horrible, death by starvation, these holy animals.

But truthfully, where do you start? Leading by example – obvious, and done. Telling people to pick up their leavings – well, I will and have done it with rickshaw drivers and the like, and I shall start doing it more. Mahesh listened to me ranting about the issue this afternoon, and said, quite correctly, “Well, that’s why we are here doing what we do”. Ajay and I spoke at Hitesh’s school this morning. We tried to keep it simple – shock tactic picture of a cow undergoing surgery to remove 17 kgs of plastic from her stomach (Luke Gamble) followed by a request to ask their families not to drop rubbish, or wrap veg scraps in plastic, and to undo and remove plastic from such bags if they see them and dispose of the plastic properly.

I don’t know. We will do what we can, we have a few ideas. Just a couple of weeks ago I spoke to one of the founders, after Republic Day actually, asking if we could at events like this, give the kids Indian sweets which are not wrapped in plastic rather than Cadbury toffees in individual shiny little purple and gold plastic sheathes of which we followed a trail out of the slum when we left … and ice cream in paper cups, or preferably, edible cones, rather than disposable plastic bowls and spoons which of course were overflowing out of every available bin after 200 odd kids had enjoyed an ice-cream after a movie afternoon. Lead by example. One of the students in the library asked why we were talking about how bad plastic was when we had used plastic to make the decorations for the library – which we had. We won’t again.

I do know that addressing this, however I can, is important to me though. And I intend to.

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