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World Environment Day

Development Trajectories and Wasted Plastics

Author: J R Bhatt and Ashish Chaturvedi

A cursory look at the history of development shows that economic growth invariably comes at the cost of environmental degradation. Beginning from the Industrial Revolution in England to the present day, most countries around the world have gained economic prosperity by putting an excessive burden on natural resources or ecosystems. These natural resources and ecosystems, either located in-country or abroad, served as a source of raw materials and sink for all kinds of environmentally burdensome effluents generated in pursuit of rapid growth.

The global experience also shows another trend – grow first and then manage the environmental degradation. For instance, the air quality in the already developed countries such as England and Germany suffered immensely in the pursuit of economic development. With sustained growth, there was enhanced economic space for investing in environmental policies and infrastructure to tackle degradation. Of course, citizens who had achieved the economic prosperity were also desirous of a better quality of life and put pressure on the policymakers to clean up the damages due to a single-minded pursuit of economic growth.

However, the experience of the already developed countries does not have to serve as the blueprint for countries that are still developing and trying to enhance the quality of life for their citizens. In fact, growth first and then clean-up later would be catastrophic for least-developed and developing countries for three reasons.

First, a majority of their citizens are dependent on natural resources for livelihoods and the opportunities in the manufacturing and service sector are still at a nascent stage. The costs of following models of growth of the already developed countries would be disproportionately borne by the most vulnerable and marginalized communities.

Second, the very idea of generating waste is antithetical to progress. It makes economic and ecological sense to not create waste. While this idea of not creating waste is currently gaining currency around the world under the broad rubric of “circular economy/ zero waste/ resource efficiency”, it has been a way of life for several generations in rural India.

Third, the experiences of the already developed countries are already before us. The same path does not have to be followed by the developing countries. Thus, sharing of experiences, institutional learning and technologies would be in the global best interest.

A case in point is the management of plastics in our life and environment. Plastics are symptomatic of a modern life. It is impossible to imagine life in any part of the world without plastics.

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We eat in plastics, drink in plastics, wear plastics and to a certain extent live in (or with) plastics. Part of the reason for the ubiquity of plastics is the versatility of the material – it can be molded into any shape, can be as thin as cling film or as sturdy as the bumper of a car. It is lightweight and above all, it is available in abundance because our economies are still fossil fuel dependent and plastics are an innocent by-product.

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However, there are significant challenges due to the widespread use of plastics. Our land, water, and even air are getting significantly polluted. Plastic waste is disposed of indiscriminately on land and water and often burnt in the uncontrolled environment leading to emissions of greenhouse gases as well as persistent organic pollutants. As the National Geographic points out, nearly 700 marine species, including endangered ones are affected by plastics in our oceans. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat microplastics.

Global per capita consumption of plastics annually is 28kg. The Europeans consume more than double (65 kg) while the Indian consume less than half (11 kg) of the world average. One possibility would be to wait till the Indian consumption reaches the European levels before we start worrying about the challenges of plastic waste. The other would be to join hands with the global community to tackle the challenge of plastic waste management while consumption levels are low.

The latter is precisely the spirit with which India is hosting the World Environment Day. This year’s theme, Beat Plastic Pollution, gives a clarion call for collaboration amongst countries all over the globe to come together to arrive at solutions for plastic waste management.

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As we embark on this global challenge, we recommend following forms of cooperation at the global level. First, we must work together to regulate international flows of plastic waste. It is clear that significant flows of plastics happen from the global north to global south. Some of it is warranted by the relocation of plastic industry and the needs of raw materials. But at the same time, the flows of waste plastics also happen in the direction of least costs incurred – environment, social and economic.

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Second, we must create an international exchange platform for sharing of global experiences on policies, business models as well as citizen initiatives. A lot of action is already happening. Initiatives that have been successful in different parts of the world need to be upscaled rather than reinventing the wheel. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is documenting some of the best practices in India. Similar initiatives need to be documented and shared widely – there is no better incentive or nudge for good behavior.

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Third, we must establish global partnerships with the private sector which is also working across national boundaries. The innovations for recycling and disposing of plastics, finding substitutes for packaging material as well as developing innovative communication drives would necessarily require the skills of the private sector. For instance, a recent report by FICCI and Accenture points out that approximately 40% of India’s plastic waste goes uncollected (ending up in landfills). Diverting this to recyclers has the potential to create 1.4 million additional jobs in India’s recycling industry.

If we manage to do that successfully, we would be able to leave a planet worth living not only for our children but also for any form of life on our planet. Such resolve is crucial every day, not only on the World Environment Day.

At the national level, we must foster partnerships amongst actors that have hitherto not engaged closely together. That would be the only way for a transformative agenda for managing plastics. Further, we should celebrate successes and individual achievements, and there are already quite a few. From Afroz Shah cleaning the Versova Beach mobilising citizen participation, to Aditya Mukarji replacing 50,000 plastic straws, to Ukhrul in Manipur becoming a plastic-free district, to Vengurla taluka banning plastic bags and using plastics to make roads, to the start-up Banyan Nation helping global brands using more recycled plastic, to more than 5 million Bharat Scouts and Guides (BSG) pledging to give up their plastic woggles, a signature element of the BSG uniform, replacing it with more sustainable and eco-friendly options – the list is growing and rapidly. We need to celebrate these initiatives and spread the Good News from India.

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**J R Bhatt is Advisor in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Ashish Chaturvedi is Director, Climate Change at the German Development Agency, GIZ. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect those of their organizations.

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Challenges to Reconnect with Nature

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Since 1972 World Environment Day is celebrated over the world to raise awareness about forests and wider issues of environmental protection. The  theme of this year’s World  Environment Day is ‘Connecting People to Nature‘. It implores us to get outdoors and into nature, to appreciate its beauty and to take forward the call to protect the Earth that we share.

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Over the years the alienation of people from nature is increasing both in urban and rural areas.

The lives of modern person is ever busy and their minds are even more busier. Under such circumstances, it is very important that we reconnect with nature to calm our minds. The green spaces available in the cities, especially trees and parks provide opportunity to reconnect people to nature.

In order to reconnect with nature, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has launched National Environment Awareness Campaign (NEAC) at national level. Under this programme financial assistance is given to NGOs, educational institutions, women and youth organisations for conducting awareness programmes on environmental issues.

About 12000 organisations are involved in conducting some action programmes related to nature protection and solving environmental problems.

Traditionally the pilgrimage centres are mainly located in the natural surroundings, especially in the mountains or banks of the rivers. The Char Dham Yatra in Himalayas is an excellent living example of how our culture provided opportunity to people across the country to enjoy the beauty of nature with reverence to the trees, rivers and mountains. The bridle path that started from the banks of Ganga river in Rishikesh lead the people to the origins of Yamuna and Ganga rivers, that are the holy pilgrimage sites visited by millions of people.

Pilgrimage routes to Amarnath caves in Jammu and Kashmir, and to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibetan plateau in China are also places of extraordinary natural beauty that has deep spiritual value to common man. These pilgrimage routes are one of the main ways to reconnect with nature and reflect on the interconnectedness between man, nature and spirituality.

Similarly the Narmada Parikrama is another traditional pilgrimage route on which people walk along the banks of Narmada river and learn to appreciate the beauty of the river and the natural surroundings.

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The existence of 166 National Parks and 515 wild life sanctuaries consisting of 2 percent of the total geographical areas of the country provides excellent opportunity for common people to enjoy and reconnect to the nature, wild life and  the green space of the country.

In order to create awareness about nature conservation the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation has initiated steps towards promoting greenery in public spaces in cities and reducing waste generation of all kinds. The craze of paving the roads and open spaces with asphalt and cement in urban areas has alienated younger generation form nature. Felling old trees to broaden the roads, and allowing more space to vehicles than for those who walk or cycle leads to further alienation of urban citizen. Urban ecology can me maintained with active participation of all the stakeholders and involvement of the community.

Reconnecting with nature helps to reduce the modern day stress and brings harmony in the lives of individuals and the community. The greenery not only reduces the noise and sound pollution but it also helps to reduce the temperature, adding in mitigating climate change.

The Government of India is launching a massive waste management campaign in 4000 cities across the country on World Environment Day .

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Under this campaign waste bins of blue and green colours would be distributed in these cities along with the awareness drive to educate common people to adopt a life-style that inculcates the culture of cleanliness.

I have a firm belief that we will develop a culture and the new steps that we take towards achieving cleanliness will continue. Only then will we achieve the dream of Gandhiji, achieve the kind of cleanliness that he had dreamt of,” Prime Minister Modi said in his monthly radio programme ‘Mann Ki Baat‘.

The government is aiming to change the attitude of people to segregate waste at its origin, dry and wet waste and to treat them accordingly. This will be the basis for cleaning up the cities that will be more nature friendly and provide the basic hygienic conditions for living. This is the logical follow up of the Swatch Bharat Abhiyaan(SBA) under which there is need to address the issue of waste generated in urban areas is creating mountains of waste that has adversely impacted the ground water and the quality of the air around the waste dumps.

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This is a challenging task as there is need to change the habits of people, in which they become the agents of change from each family by performing the duty or dharma of segregation  of waste.

In Indian culture, the connectedness to nature is the basis for attaining wisdom and serenity in life. The sages or the Rishi,s the learned men gained this wisdom from the forests or Aranya Culture. They lived in harmony with nature, and most of the knowledge was imbibed from their natural surroundings.

We need to inculcate these ideas into our daily lives in order to reconnect with nature. It is essential for common man to realise the air he breathes, water he drinks, the food he eats is all directly the product of nature. And linking to nature is the basis for survival of mankind.

*Author is an independent journalist and columnist based in Karnataka. 

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