GOA, India -- Campaigners who waged a pitched battle against proliferating plastics in India's tourist state of Goa have been left holding the plastic bag. The campaigners must now deal with tons of plastic that no one wants. They pin their hopes on changes in the law that could help tackle the problem of plastic litter.
In early June a new law will enforce a ban on the thin plastic bags that now pile up and blow around everywhere particularly near marketplaces frequented by tourists. By the millions, they come to Goa for the beaches on India's west coast and want to enjoy a clean environment, but they leave tons of plastic trash in their wake.
Mahalaxmi Bhobe, a project officer for the Plastic Free Goa Campaign, says the new law might help because plastic bags will no longer be handed out for free by shopkeepers. "The government is shortly implementing a law banning plastic bags below 100 microns in thickness. We hope that this will help solve the problem. Each bag of this thickness would cost five to 10 rupees (US$.10 to $.20). So people would either re-use these bags or avoid using them."
As the citizens stepped up their campaign, the Goa government offered some support by banning bags below 20 microns thickness. But Bhobe says that the law banning thin plastic bags has been largely ineffective.
Manufacturers of plastic carry bags found a novel way of hoodwinking the enforcement authorities. Bags with bubbled or corrugated surfaces are openly being sold by dealers. The goal is to deceive the micrometer guage which would show the bags as being above 20 microns in thickness, even though the effective thickness is much less.
Patricia Pinto agrees. An active anti-plastics campaigner who recently got elected municipal councillor in the state capital of this former Portuguese colony, Panjim, she says citizens are willing to cooperate if offered a solution.
But simply cleaning up plastics is of no use if no checks are put on their proliferation, Pinto says. Today, there is so much plastic all over and so much more is being added daily, that regardless of how many cleanups are undertaken, they will not get rid of the plastic waste.
After a cleanup drive over an 80 day period at the end of last year, rubbish plastics were collected from across the state of Goa. Temporary dumpsites were set up in three places. But now the campaigners are stumped by what to do with the tons of waste plastics.
"Our campaign has taken several plastic reprocessors to the site. None of them appears interested. As the government has now banned plastic bags below 20 microns, plastic waste that was earlier taken and downcycled to produce such coloured polybags, is now no longer in demand. The idea that such plastic can be recycled is a myth," says Bhobe.
Today, plastic litter has found its way back into places that had been cleaned during the 80 day citizens' campaign. White plastic bags are now found strewn all over, and these are not picked up by rag pickers who find them not worth the effort.
Citizens need to be convinced about the need for segregating wastes, the campaigners say. "Presently, as there are no arrangements for collection of garbage, the shops and establishments burn their waste late in the evenings or dump it in gutters away from the building," the campaigners found.
Lack of rubbish bins means surroundings are littered with plastic waste including the plastic bags used to supply milk which are now strewn all over Goa. But installing bins can cause problems too. Where bins are installed, dirt piles up around them because there is an inadequate or non-existent garbage collection system.
Campaigners suggest that the ultimate solution would be house to house collection of garbage, and no dustbins. They point to examples like the nearby plush residential colony of Dona Paula where this system seems to be working well.
Village garbage, notes a newly issued report by anti-plastics campaigners, has "only recently" become a problem. For generations, village folk have been dealing with their own garbage. Now that plastics have "made an inroad into almost every purchase of ordinary householders," it is crucial for collection of non-biodegradable garbage to be made by the authorities "if the village is to be kept clean," the report urges.
Goa is currently one of India's most important tourist destinations, with over a million visitors visiting this region each year. One in every four comes from outside the country.
Anti-plastics campaigners have called on Goa's Tourism Department to get hoteliers, shack owners, restaurant owners and tour operators to share the responsibility for clean-up. Beaches need special dustbins for plastic bottles and litter, campaigners say.
Plastic bottles form a big part of Goa's plastic problem, because so many thousands of tourists provide themselves with bottled drinking water. They leave large numbers of non-biodegradable plastic water bottles behind as waste.
Plastic bottles should have a buy-back scheme, to give rag pickers an incentive to collect them, the campaigners suggest. Glass bottles should be used unless manufacturers prove they have the capacity to handle plastic empties, campaigners say.
Shopkeepers who have restarted dispensing thin plastic carry bags blame the law. When the government started confiscating bags, they were concealed. Now, these bags have started reappearing "because there is no enforcement now from the government machinery in spite of the law," the campaigners report.
Some local village level political councils in Goa, known as panchayats, have passed resolutions asking for a ban on plastics.
Campaigners say their 80 day drive had a "significant impact" on the consciousness of people across Goa, and galvanized society in a way that few other issues have. In some markets, a shift towards papper wrapping of vegetables and other commodities is taking place.
"Our campaign has also blown the myth about the recyclability of such plastic waste. What was surprising was to find that plastics cannot be recycled. We found that the plastics were either too dirty, had been downcycled, or simply lacked a market," Bhobe told ENS.
To downcycle plastic waste is to make an inferior product out of the used material.
"The main lesson we learned was that there is no solution to the plastics problem. It's all make believe," says cost engineer turned environmentalist Anthony Simoes. "You have to control it at source. You cannot recycle or downcycle out of plastics," he says.
"All that glitters is not gold. People once thought that by using plastics, they were moving up in the social ladder. Or they felt that paper was a primitive way of packaging," says Simoes. He believes the only thing that would work would be for the government to "make plastics more expensive."
Economics of the petrochemicals industry means that a whole lot of cheap by-products get churned out, from which industry churns out cheap plastic products, Simoes argues. "Just taking these to dump sites is then no solution. Persons who manufactured the products should be made responsible for their proper disposal."
He cites the example of a prominent manufacturer who packages drinking water in PET plastic bottles. "We took a whole lot of empty bottles and dumped it at the factory of one of the manufacturer. Now, to evade responsibility, they simply avoid printing the company name directly on the bottles.
"When we confronted them some 18 months back, the unit promised that they would shread the PET bottles, truck them to the nearby city of Bombay 600 kilometers (400 miles) to the north, and turn them into some other product. But why should they do it? There's simply no pressure on them to incur additional expenses," Simoes says.
After this ambitious campaign, citizens want to move into the next step. They plan to shift gears from having a campaign to having a garbage project.
"We need to look at hospital wastes too. And the question of keeping the beaches clean. That is entirely other issue," says Bhobe.
Over the next few months, municipalities and village panchayats in the more populated areas of Goa will be educated on the laws regarding plastic wastes particularly the Goa Non-Biodegradable Garbage Control Act.