I Pick Up My Trash Because It Matters If I Don’t: Why Plastic Must Exit Our Lives

by | Mar 27, 2022

As a part of Justice-Makers’ Writer’s Training Program by Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA), I had the opportunity to explore and write on a topic that I am extremely passionate about – Environmental Justice. During the course of this program I wrote three pieces through the lens of consumerism, sustainable business and government’s role in plastic pollution. Here is my first piece that reflects a personal story of passion towards plastic pollution. It was originally published here.

“Pick that up or we’re no longer friends!”

Sometimes I wish I could say this to everyone around me with the same confidence as I did to my friend about 8 years ago. Arya and I were walking back home after winning a race on sports day. With an empty chips packet in hand and no bin in sight, Arya threw it on the road. I paused and asked her to pick it up only to see her grin and walk away. I bent down and picked it up myself.

With a glare, I ran to join her back while high-fiving a lady who put her hand up after witnessing the incident. When I look back, it feels strange! Neither had we recently studied about littering nor did I have a history with it. After a lot of pondering, I made peace with it – although I couldn’t trace the roots of my action, I was glad about what came after. That high-five gave me a sense of accomplishment.

Here’s the thing about me, I’m a stickler for praise and attention. Hence, there was no going back. I could no longer litter because someone had appreciated me for not doing it and I guess that’s how this journey began. As a person passionate about environmental justice, never would I have guessed that my passion point would be something as frivolous yet important as this.

Unlike my other environmental awareness, littering was action before knowledge. I did it because it kept my “surroundings clean”. It was a chore, not a duty. Social media brought in the much-needed light that changed this attitude – The cows and dogs I smiled at every morning would choke on the polythene bag filled with stale rasam-rice that I carelessly threw away.

Now, I picked my trash up not because I conditioned myself to do so but because it mattered if I didn’t. It’s not easy; being a teen anti-litterer in a rapidly growing city like Bangalore. For one, you eat a lot of junk – while walking back from school, travelling (oh! How I loved watching the wrapper fly behind me as I threw it out our car window), at home, basically all day, everywhere.

With a lot of self-disciplining amidst bouts of guilt, I began to master the art of not littering, be it by putting the chips wrapper in my school bag or by carrying a separate trash bag while travelling. Just like any other journey, once you cross a hurdle, the next one presents itself.

But Was I Enough?

In this case, my second hurdle was sensitising others to litter. I wish it was as easy as the ‘DO NOT LITTER HERE’ signboards make it sound. When I asked people to not litter some laughed while others ignored but I’m not going to forget the sweethearts who heard me and picked their trash up!

Living in a budding metropolis, as you look around, all you see is plastic and its friends – in your house, on the road, in the lake, in the playground, everywhere and no, it’s not just litter. You don’t litter at home, do you? At home, your trash is beautifully organised in the farthest corner there is. If you happen to go to college in the outskirts, the garbage piles are waiting to greet you in the morning, with their stink and toxins and we all know where it came from – our homes.

The more you observe, the more you realise that not littering is not enough! There was a bigger problem. A problem that is not only causing a nuisance in our lives but more importantly is, through all its shapes and forms, destroying Mother Earth; a problem that has killed 20 elephants in 8 years in Sri Lanka.

A problem that floats on the ocean, guilt-free. A problem that’s in our clothes, toothpaste and shampoo. A problem that we all know exists but helplessly brush under the soil.

This brings us to the next hurdle in this journey – To deal with plastic’s presence. I remember the time I forced my mother to start waste segregation – it took me nearly 6 months to get the family to organically do it. Upcycling was another thing I did out of creativity and need because my mother didn’t really buy me a lot of things and, in retrospect, I’m so glad she didn’t!

I needed to find a way to store my lovely socks in a safe, tidy and easy way! This sock organiser is made from a larger, rectangular plastic bottle.

With a nudge from a friend, I opened an Instagram page to share my upcycling journey with the world. This page, Upcycle Unicorn, went from being a mere art page to an awareness page where I could share information about plastic consumption. I also started a series called ‘Sustainability 101’ where I shared easy, not-so-overwhelming tips to lead a more environmentally friendly life for urban youth.

The response I got on this page was overwhelming, not because people appreciated it but because it meant they understood that there was a problem and wanted to be a part of the solution.

Unfortunately, products containing or covered in plastic have become a huge part of our lives. They are everywhere, from the food we eat to the houses we build. As I said, awareness is not the main issue. None of us likes to see piles of plastic on our sidewalks. None of us wants to see a turtle tangled in a plastic wire. None of us wants to see people living in filth.

All of us want things to be better. Well, then what do we do? As long as we do not have an alternative, it’s difficult for someone so dependent on plastic to cut off from it. Lucky for us, we have creative minds coming up with wonderful alternatives. Be it packaging, formulae or processes. Of course, like plastic’s pitfall of destroying the earth, these products have their own – SKY HIGH PRICES! My friend Shalu says, “I want to buy these products and I will, when I earn enough to afford them” and I agree.

Coming from middle-class families, we have to choose – Buy a plastic toothbrush that our great great great great great granddaughter would find buried in the backyard or spend money on an eco-friendly one and give up our dream of visiting Italy. With my current income, I can barely treat myself to pasta or a good beer. How can I get myself to spend ₹400 on a shampoo bar that runs out after 20 washes? It’s just not economical!

It’s no secret that the market is a game of supply and demand. The higher the demand, the higher is the supply and hence, the lower is the production rate. With higher production, companies can bring down the cost per piece, thus creating a better demand with cheaper prices. So, if I need to buy expensive eco-friendly products at cheaper rates, then I need to first buy them at a higher price? Well we’re not going to do that, are we?

Billions of tons of plastic have been made over the past decades, and much of it is becoming trash and litter.

Here’s Another Solution I Propose

We all know that the government taxes industries for their carbon production/consumption and is working on investing in a green market. Why can’t small, sustainable businesses come together and appeal to the government to fund their marketing? They can use the money to produce samplers for their target customers. This will not only help them market the product to a larger customer base but also introduce people to the world of sustainable living.

This, I believe will give the brands the much-needed kick-start in production and reach. Over a period of time, if not all, some of the customers would come back and become regulars. With increased demand, the brands can cut down their production costs and thus, up to their demand.

What’s in it for us? Well for starters, free stuff! But more importantly, all of us who wanted to do something about all the plastic we use can now try our hand at sustainable products and also save up for their trip to Italy!

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