When I wrote my first blog on NDTV in November 2020, the world was seeing the COVID-19 pandemic numbers coming down. India wasn’t any different. The situation was normalizing and there was a sense of relief. There were voices too from the medical and science fraternity which cautioned how global pandemics in the past have played out. Case in point, the Spanish flu from a century ago had three major waves, with the second 10-15 times deadlier than the first.
Then life started coming back to normal. I had to get back on the ground to resume our work too. But since we could not afford to stop wearing masks and avoid social distancing, I started the Ride For Change campaign in February 2021 where every week, I cycled from Delhi to another city in North India, including Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, and Himachal. The campaign endeavoured to solve two big problems through its primary message of Zero Emissions and Zero Waste. Over five weeks, we had cumulatively cycled 26,000 KMs, reduced about 7 tonnes of carbon emissions and picked up 1.8 tonnes of litter from parks, streets, and even forests (Aravalis).
And then the second wave struck, more transmissible and dangerous than the first one. Suddenly the virus was in the air. One mask, especially the fabric mask, was not good enough anymore. Double masking became a norm with a combination of surgical mask and N95 thought to be most efficacious. With Plastic Upvaas, our fight since the past year had been against single-use surgical masks and gloves, and now they had become a life-saving essential. How can you argue against that?
But the more relevant question is how did we get here? What are we doing to our planet, its environment? Let’s look at how COVID-19 has disrupted our fight against single-use plastic.
In the US, COVID-19 galvanized efforts by plastic lobbying groups to contest and overturn the bans in several states. At the start of 2020, an American Grocer Giant Eagle phased out single-use plastic bags. That cut down on 20 million single-use plastic bags. But in mid-March, the grocery chain returned plastic bags to all stores, requesting customers to keep reusable ones at home. The US demand for plastic packaging increased by 5 per cent in 2020 as compared to the previous year, according to consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.
Biomedical waste has become a major issue, now that it comes from every household. India produced 33,000 tonnes of biomedical waste in just seven months between June 2020 and January 2021, as per the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The segregation at source, collection, and disposal has been a major challenge and poses additional health risks beyond covid. India has about 200 Common Bio-medical Waste Treatment Facilities (CBWTF) where this waste needs to go. In July 2020, Delhi’s capacity to handle such waste was 74 tonnes a day whereas Delhi was already generating 5 times the amount. That makes the waste pickers and populations living near landfills and garbage dumps extremely vulnerable. All ULBs (Urban Local Bodies) along with relevant authorities need to ensure capacity building and minimal leakages in the bio-medical waste journey from source to disposal.
Two examples of these leakages. Recently, we got our house sanitized. The staff was well-trained and came in hazmat suits. After work, these men asked if they could throw their PPEs (Personal Protective Equipments) in our trash bin. I was astonished and told them the right way of doing it. The second example is when I was diagnosed with COVID-19 in mid-April and was in isolation for three weeks, while several departments including the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, Delhi Government, Local District office called up on a regular basis, our household was never provided with yellow bags. As per CPCB guidelines, every household with a COVID-positive person needs to keep their solid waste separately. Once I recovered, I spoke to the Board officials, identified the gaps, and devised measures to solve it. But then, this is just one Urban Local Body (ULB). There are hundreds of others in the country. These two examples highlight the huge challenge we have.
The Rationale Behind Not Using Single-Use Plastics:
As per a survey by Mumbai-based Earth5R in May 2020, single-use plastic consumption increased by 47 per cent in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune. In 2020, a Lancet study showed that plastics are conducive environments where coronavirus can stay up to 6 days, whereas on a cloth, it will die out within 1-2 days. A Greenpeace USA study along with 125 experts suggested that reusables are as safe as single-use.
There is Science on one side and people’s fears on the other. How do we tackle that?
Let me end by asking you a question. When you travel or eat outside, would you prefer your cup or a single-use cup that you have no clue how many hands has it exchanged. Similarly, with straws, bottles, mugs, bags, and so on.
Whatever we do, let’s not make this pandemic an excuse to create another crisis.
(The article was authored by Ripu Daman Bevli, Founder, Litter Free India movement and Plogging Ambassador of India)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.