Have We Made It Impossible To Get Rid Of Plastics?

The World Environment Day came and went by – and like many others around me, I thought it was time to start making a change in my life. I pledged to #unplastic. And then started the ordeal.

The first step was eliminating the need for and usage of single-use plastic. I had seen numerous posters about this – and they all talked about eliminating shopping bags, straws and water bottles. That couldn’t be hard, now could it?

First came the shopping bags. My parents had shifted to cloth/jute totes quite a while back – so this was just like picking up an old habit. I added thin fold-able cloth totes to my kitchen drawer and office bag (read unplanned grocery shopping trips).

Water bottles – this wasn’t difficult either. I already had steel bottles at home and office – I had to just make sure I carried a bottle every time I stepped out, even if it was to the mall or to the airport (Airport hack: Carry empty bottle across the security check and then fill it at the water dispensers).

Straws – eliminating these weren’t a problem at all, as I am not a soda person and straws ranked very low in my consumption pattern any way.

That is it, right? I was winning this war on plastic already.

Not quite. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon be damned. For those who haven’t heard, it’s the phenomenon when a thing you just discovered suddenly seems to crop up everywhere. Yes, there is a word for that!

And though I hadn’t heard about plastic for the first time (duh), I started seeing plastic everywhere. It was as if my eyes had added a plastic scanner in the retina and I just could not escape them. Of course, we all know plastic is everywhere, but I was about to find out just how deeply they are embedded in our lives.

I decided to phase out all single-use/frequently-disposed plastics from my life. Sounds easy enough, right? At least, I thought so too.

The first thing that popped up for me, as a woman, was sanitary pads. This was actually the highest contributor of my plastic waste (even including the ‘holy grail’ of the three evils mentioned earlier). I knew what I had to do – shift to menstrual cups.

But for a girl who is not very comfortable using tampons (because they need to be inserted into the vagina), and had used sanitary pads for five days every month for the last 13 years, I knew this was going to be a mammoth task. Nonetheless I decided, gaining familiarity was not the biggest issue – it was just a matter of time.

It was the two other problems that struck me. One of them would turn out to be the biggest I was going to face in this entire process.

First – what would happen to the emergency pad I had stashed in every bag/purse/drawer? ‘Cloth pads’, I hear you say? Yeah, that is possibly the only option, unless I buy a set of like five cups and place them everywhere. Either way, sounds doable.

The second issue was one I will refer to, again and again. It is the most irksome hindrance of all. I couldn’t find the cup or the cloth pads at my neighbourhood store, and I searched on “apni dukaan” Amazon – and of course, I found exactly what I needed. Excited, I immediately added it to my cart. I was going to change my life, I was going to bring a revolution! That is when it struck me – packaging!

Have you seen the ridiculous amount of packaging e-commerce sites use to pack products for shipment? Those plastic covers, the air-filled plastic balloons, the excessive thermocol… sigh.

What could I do now? I could buy substitutes for plastics any time, but if they came wrapped in more single-use plastic, my purpose was entirely lost now, wasn’t it?

Feeling defeated, I stepped out of the house to buy myself some fresh vegetables and fruits. I had carried a tote with me – Me 1 Plastic 0. My neighbourhood supermarket always had fresh veggies in the mornings – and I was going to stock my kitchen for the week! I stepped in and as soon as I started picking apples from the shelf, I realised plastic had trumped me in this round too. There were rolls of plastic covers along the shelves in which I was supposed to fill my selects – and they couldn’t be avoided because the guy at the weighing counter had to weigh and bar-code them.

Oh, oh – this meant that I had to go the sabzi mandi a kilometer away and purchase my ration there. Yes, I know you will say that’s good because I was directly buying from the vendors. True… but a large dollop of realisation fell onto me, as I slowly made my way towards the mandi. I was going to have to give up a lot of conveniences for this.

What seemed like a simple-enough pledge a few days back had now turned into an ever-growing monster that was either going to push me to give up or turn my entire life upside down.

A few days went by, and I was actually liking a few parts of this journey. I couldn’t eat any packaged food. Earlier, to eliminate disposable boxes, spoons, forks and sporks, I had to dismiss all my cravings and eliminate any kind of food deliveries and takeaways. So, unbeknownst to itself, this pledge was helping me in my weight-loss game too. A double win!

But how could this plastic monster possibly see me happy? As my kitchen shelves ran out of staples, I realised this packaged-food ban extended to not just junk food but to all kinds of food.

I had to forego my favourite yoghurts (and if you know me even a little, you would know that I can kill for a cup of good berry yoghurt). I figured I would buy milk and curdle them the good old way at home – but how do I buy milk? Packets, tetra packs – all plastic. Some dairy shops offer milk by the tap, and it is cheaper too – but I did not find any in the vicinity of where I live. The only option was glass bottles, and reusable ones at that. Where do I get those now?

I guess it was so much better in the olden days when the milkman came to the door and poured milk out of his steel jug into your utensil.

Rice, wheat, lentils, frozen food, meat, fish – could I buy anything at all with plastic-free packaging? I could buy eggs – and condiments, possibly. Not a very healthy diet though, I suppose.

For meat, I found a shop nearby selling freshly-cut meat. So I could go and pick it up in my container. But fish markets were going to be impossible. Shoot.

Purely out of habit, I went back to e-commerce sites to find foods without plastic packaging. Some organic food companies offer foods in paper packaging, metal tins and glass containers too. But I reached the same impasse betweem e-commerce and plastic-free packaging.

And I haven’t even talked about how excessively expensive some of these things were!

Some of my food problems were solved when I found a gourmet organic-food supermarket in a neighbourhood nearby. Though it added to the travel time, cost and of course, the increased prices of the ‘gourmet’ foods, I could at least eat while keeping my pledge. For now.

Tired but glad that I had won a small battle with the monster, I went for my daily hot shower. Stepping into the bath, I had to laugh when I saw 10 plastic bottles of different shapes, sizes and colours staring back at me. Though these bottles were not really ‘everyday-throws’, I easily replaced them once a month or so. This monster was sneaky.

I made some customary changes the same day, changed my hand wash and shower gels to good-old soap bars. Thanks to the influx of handmade/organic soaps, I could find bars with paper/non-plastic packaging rather easily.

I didn’t want to eliminate liquid soaps in the beginning – but I thought that even if I bought those pretty, glass hand-wash bottles, I would need refill packs every month – and those were of course plastic. There go my dreams of a Pinterest-worthy bathroom.

The other things turned out to be harder to substitute. To substitute my trusted zigzag toothbrush, I found pretty bamboo brushes on (you guessed it!) Amazon. Toothpaste was even harder – there was no direct substitute at all. I had to move to tooth-powders, or as we call it dant-manjan! I still remember the red-and-white jar of the Colgate tooth-powder my grandfather used to use. Yes, yes – I know, that jar is plastic too, but there were a few organic tooth-powders available in glass jars with metal caps. It was funny how this plastic-free journey was also taking me towards fresher and cleaner foods/toiletries.

I used to have a toiletry travel bag with 8-9 essential bottles – a shampoo, a conditioner, shower gel, face wash, intimate wash, oil, moisturiser. And now, I had to shift to an organic soap bar, shampoo bar, hair masque, face-scrub powder, oil and body butter – all in glass bottles or metal tins.

My handbag essentials changed from hand sanitiser, mouthwash and lip chapstick, to soap strips, fresh mints (in a tin) and lip-butter.

Even our toiletries and cosmetics add to our consumption of plastics and ultimately, plastic waste and pollution. (Representative image)

But my ordeal was far from over. I had completely forgotten about cleaning products – utensil soaps, laundry detergents, toilet cleaners, floor cleaners. It was as if someone was systematically conspiring against me succeeding in this journey.

I switched the liquid utensil soap with a Vim bar (careful though, most of the bars are packed in plastic too). But I am still struggling with the others. The internet suggests home-made recipes to substitute detergents and cleaners. Is there really no other way?

I did not begin this journey with the thought that I would have to reconsider my consumption choices so deeply. I do not want to live a hermit life – I am a through-and-through metropolitan girl who enjoys her shopping. As I am writing this, I can think of so many things I haven’t even started thinking of substituting yet – from pens to toys to tiffin boxes and cosmetics. I did not realise that this pledge would need me to make so many lifestyle changes – no packaged foods, no food deliveries, no online shopping. This was ending my ‘convenience lifestyle’ piece by piece.

A simple trial to phase out one seemingly-inconspicuous material from my life is turning almost into an existential crisis. And this is when I have not even started looking at phasing out long-term plastics.

It was not long before I came to the realisation that it was foolish of me to think I can eliminate all the plastics from my lifestyle. But I could definitely try my best to reduce my plastic consumption.

Then came the second part of the ordeal – if I still had plastic waste, I had to look at disposing them responsibly. So I peered into my dustbin only to see a glistening black garbage bin liner. How in the world had I missed this?

There were going to be two parts to the disposal too.

One – the plastic liner itself. A simple substitute to this (but extremely hard to find, without e-commerce, that is) was biodegradable garbage-bin liners.

The other option was home-composting the wet waste and throwing the dry waste as it is. Wait, home-composting you say? Most composters in the market are plastic baskets to be filled with dry leaves and microbe powder. Not helpful. I found these beautiful terracotta composters by DailyDump, but they had to be placed in the ground because they used actual earthworms for the composting process. Two issues here – I am in office for an average of 11 hours a day, and I do not have the time to segregate and make compost! Plus, I live in an apartment on the sixth floor, there aren’t any earthworms here.

Composts can also lead to plastic pollution. (Representative image)

Coming to the second part of the disposal – it is obvious that segregation is essential to even come to this stage. So even if I did not compost, I figured I would need a 3-part dustbin – one for wet waste, one for biodegradable dry waste and the third for plastics.

But what after that? How do I make sure the plastics I have so carefully used and segregated will not be mixed and thrown into the same mounting landfills outside the city? Are there any plastic recyclers/collectors who can come by and pick up my plastic waste? I haven’t found anything yet to be done at an individual level. I hope I will eventually find a way out though.

This journey is going to be arduous, with some difficult choices to make – but I have started walking on this path. I hope I am able to keep going and not give in to this monster.

All of us know the ill effects of plastic on the environment around us, our fellow beings, the land and in the oceans. It is just that we have made it super-hard to stop using plastics, given our lifestyles. We are very good at shoving all the trash away from our sight – behind our beautiful roads and buildings.

But then again, isn’t that like the pigeon who closes her eyes to ignore the cat approaching her – thinking that if she can’t see it, it is not going to eat her up either? And we all know that is not how the story ends.

So, I urge you to take a look around you, in your lives, and lessen your use of plastic in the kitchen, bathrooms, and outside homes. Yes, it requires more effort and more conscious/less-convenient choices, but if enough of us do this, we can generate a demand for plastic-free products and packaging. And as capitalism would state, “Where there is demand, there shall be supply.” Let us try to shift our world towards a more sustainable economy, one plastic bag at a time.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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