Maharashtra plastic ban: A peek into the past reveals that plastic did not always rule people's lives

Some 60 years ago, our grocer would easily pack a ser – about 930 grams – of sugar deftly. The grocer would make a cone of a newspaper, fold the tip at the bottom, pour the sugar into it and fold the margins at the top over each other. A string, starting from the tip, would be wound in a crisscross fashion to tie up the cone.

It would take all of 30 seconds, after which the cone would be slipped into the cloth bag to be carried home. A cloth bag was normal, even for schools. As students, we would pack books and a lunch box in it, and no, we didn’t carry plastic water bottles. We drank the elixir of life by placing our cupped palm under the tap and putting our lips to a point near the wrist.

Civic workers inspect shops following the plastic ban in Maharashtra. PTI

Civic workers inspect shops following the plastic ban in Maharashtra. PTI

Of course, for larger quantities of groceries, one used cloth bags. And at the greengrocer’s, each kind of vegetable went into it to be sorted at home, not each in an individual plastic bag. And for fluids like oil or ghee, one carried a container. The metal containers had a lid and a handle, the latter curving over the diagram of its mouth. People would take the containers home taking care not to swing them.

That was in Secunderabad, where even kids could go to the store half-a-kilometre away because there was hardly any traffic. The grocer’s swift packing style, even as he chatted with us kids or his assistant to go collect some unpaid bills from someone, was not unique or mesmerising. It was a way of life. It seems so unreal now.

On Saturday, in a huge departmental store in Thane, I saw paper bags instead of polythene ones. They had replaced the plastic ones, with the ban in Maharashtra kicking in. The customers were ill at ease too, for it was a novel thing. Some saw an item, like a fair-sized cabbage, fall through the bottom, because the joints gave way or the paper just tore.

They had not yet printed the logo of their store, presumably waiting for the D-day, hoping the ban wouldn’t come into force. The bag’s surface is valuable advertising space, and which retailer would not like to capitalise on it? There were quite a few torn bags discarded. Some, when questioned, said, “Don’t worry, the plastic ban cannot be enforced. It is a huge inconvenience.”

That is a kind of resistance. While not all plastic has been proscribed, we need to change our view. It cannot be that plastic rules our lives. It cannot be that even a bottle gourd, when bought in a departmental store requires to be put in a plastic sleeve before being pasted with the bar code and the price to pay. It cannot be that carrying a cloth bag is infra dig or inelegant.

Our Secunderabad grocer bought old newspapers which were carried to his shop, not picked up like the raddiwalah does now from our homes. Sometimes, the grocer rewarded me with an orange-coloured and orange-shaped hard-boiled sweet for my labour. In those days, there weren't as many newspapers as there are now, and they had fewer pages.

Brown paper bags were meant for coffee powder, which was naturally bought in small quantities. Even the biscuits didn’t come with any plastic in the wrappings, but had what I now think was wax.

Nowadays, even apples, especially imported ones, have a coating of wax on them. Who knows when this will be replaced by plastic!

Maharashtra's ban on plastic is a good move, although the authorities themselves are not able to clearly tell which items are not allowed. If one were to go by newspaper reports, one would get the impression that the ban is meant for only Mumbai city and suburbs. It is not clear yet how Thane, Navi Mumbai, Pune, or other places are dealing with it.

However, plastic is certainly a menace, an illustration of which is the Juhu beach where activists face a Sisyphean task. Instead of the metaphorical rock rolling down the hill, plastic comes in waves from the sea. Plastic is just as common in villages and towns, and you can see it littering the landscape. Cows and goats in rural areas also end up ingesting plastic items.


Updated Date: Jun 24, 2018 17:28 PM

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