Maharashtra plastic ban: Life after plastic? It?s fantastic

Plastic used for packaging is – with effect from Gudi Padwa – contraband in Maharashtra.

With the development, life is suddenly full of complications for at least three generations that grew up in Urbs Prima in Indis. Existential questions ranging from, “Will the little plastic tripod on the Domino’s pizzas be done away with?” to “Is it still okay to wrap the used sanitary napkin in those bright green plastic thingies they come in?” have been anxiously doing the rounds.

The state government’s second serious effort to let the metropolis’ lungs breathe is laudable no doubt, even if riddled with implementation problems. When the Mithi choked on the regurgitated plastic discarded by apathetic citizens in 2005, the administration’s decision to ban the 20 micron carry-away plastic bags was met with derision. Catch us if you can, said the macchiwala and the sabziwala. The grahak, so long inured to walking hands-free to the market and returning with bulging plastic bags looking like a teenager after a Forever 21 sale, couldn’t care less.

The malleability of the fabricated bag, cup, straw and plate had made us forget that we had managed to live – quite happily – before the convenience of plastic. So what gives? Why do we deal with this question with the perplexity of a teenager who wonders how his parents ever survived before the advent of the mobile phone?

There are mothers out there who steadfastly scoffed at the idea of disposing even the ziplock bags after a single use.

There are generations around, and I don’t mean the geriatric ones, who still remember swinging a cloth bag to the market to buy onions, and standing in line at the government’s subsidised booths to collect their daily ration of milk bottles. The local butcher wrapped up your mutton in yesterday’s newspaper, and trusty old Wibs bread came packaged in butter paper that was then used to wrap the next day’s tiffin sandwiches. Mothers recycled old frocks into jaunty little sling bags that could be used for carrying books to tuitions or for lugging the month’s provisions home from the local kirana store.

No one thought twice about taking a steel dabba from home to the sweetmeat shop to pack in a dozen rasgullas for the family lunch, and the same went for packing the sambhar when you wanted to parcel a dosa for home consumption from the local Udupi restaurant.

Plastic, the ever-resilient champion, changed the equation. Plastic adapted itself like a shape-shifting hydra to suit our urban needs. Chai at the local tapri could now be served out of wobbly little plastic cups or packed in even wobblier plastic bags and ordered up to office. The paper straws that suffered abominable malfunctioning in young hands trying to slurp Coca-Cola in the pre-George Fernandes days bowed out to funky plastic ones that bent any way you liked. The good old newspaper was nudged out of service for packing parwal, pomfret, or poultry from the market down the lane, sending the raddi sector into a tailspin it’s probably never recovered from. In the perishables market, the Plastic Revolution came a close second only to the Industrial one in impact.

Restaurants followed. Retail brands followed. Households followed.

But like all good Indians who won’t give up on a tube of toothpaste until it’s been sucked dry with help of a rolling pin, plastic found several rebirths in each household. Important property documents and bank papers were carefully stored away in plastic bags that came from sari shops or Raymond’s outlets. The sturdier of these fancy bags made lasting liners for kids’ school bags during the monsoon. Takeaway containers were washed, dried, and recycled to pack in laddoos for the son to take back to the hostel in the next term. There are mothers out there who steadfastly scoffed at the idea of disposing even the ziplock bags after a single use. Why waste a good product that could be rinsed and reused?

But of course, as with all these things urban, there was no end to the gluttony of the market.

Young millennials, reared on plastic money, any way have little need or patience for a lifestyle that needs lesser plastic and a bit more effort. For this generation, everything consumable came out of a tetrapak or a PET bottles. Those born after the ’80s can hardly be faulted for wondering if there can be any substitute for the hardy, resilient plastic: Swiggy’d food is delivered in throwaway dabbas, groundnuts sold on the local are plastic-packed, and 90 per cent of the Chinese knick-knacks that populate the living room are made of the wonder material anyway. Plastic didn’t rust, plastic was water-proof, and plastic could be moulded to every need.

Producer, trader and consumer all connived, unintentionally fostering an economy that’s ended up clogging our drains, cluttering our beaches, and choking our environment. It needed stringent activism and some determined government push to remind us that we have done once without plastic, and probably can do again.

Not since demonetisation has one seen the trader community so concerned. With GST they thought they had seen the worst of it all, but the plastic ban, goes the consensus, hits below the belt. The local farsan shop owner looks at the piles of stock neatly packed in plastic pouches, and wonders if he’s now got to unpack it all, and the nursery down the road is wondering if its baby saplings, nurtured in their black plastic pouches, will soon lose their cosy cribs. The garbage collector harrumphs in glee when I ask him, and says he will be happy to see the last of the plastic jholis, even as he rubs choona on his palm, and flicks its plastic wrapping behind him. My mother on the other hand, has been assiduously storing all the bags that have come her way in the last few months. “These are going to be in high demand in the next few days, just wait and watch,” she says ominously.

But when it’s all done, we will hopefully revert to a more innocent age where no one minded drinking coffee out of steel tumblers that were rinsed after a quick dunk in the bucket. Or bringing home fish that often bore the imprint of kal ki taaza khabar. It will be a world where we can, hopefully, breathe easier, walk barefoot on the beach without getting our feet entangled in a wrapper or a bag.

In an ideal world, all that remains plastic will probably be our politicians’ smiles. There’s hardly anything we can do about that.

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