One thing to do on International Plastic Bag free day: Think before you throw

Every choice to not buy a plastic bag goes a long way in reducing the pressure on earth to dispense with the garbage that we throw away.

flickr cc

flickr cc Jedimentat44

Recycling as a way of living

We, Indians, hail from a culture where every twig, twine and scrap was seen as valuable. We have all grown up watching our elders save leftover cloth pieces from sewing, convert old clothes into dusters, and reuse aluminium foil and plastic packets for food packaging. We have watched them unwrap gifts carefully so that the wrapping paper can be stored for use in the future. We have given our shoes to the local mochi for resoling to extend its life for a few more months. And remember in school, when our mothers sewed cloth patches onto our clothes where they had torn? These are all examples of recycling, except they were never called so. These were measures that all households practiced, measures that came so intuitively to us. When something got damaged at home, our first instinct was to repair, not throw. We tried our best to extend the life of our possessions, be it our torn socks, a broken lamp or a worn out sofa. We have all, at some point in our lives handed down clothes (or been handed to) and used the previous night’s leftovers innovatively in our next day’s lunch. In environmental terminology these are defined as sustainable practices; practices which are slow on consumption and disposal of resources.

How we transformed from a society of retainers to one of disposers

flickr cc Janine

flickr cc Janine

Rising incomes and lifestyles have reduced the value of materials in our lives. Easy availability and low costs aids this aggressive consumption rampage that we are on. With the rise of the service sector industry, ‘convenience’ is the order of the day. The ubiquitous plastic carries a massive part of the blame, as we are being bombarded with plastic bags and products from all sides.

Plastic reduced the costs and wastage associated with packaging. Plastic reduced the weight of packaging, hence paving the way for convenient transportation and a higher supply of products that were cumbersome to deliver. Plastic increased the shelf life of food, reducing the outlay of expired food and providing consumers with an array of options. Plastic reduced the messiness of carrying ready to eat snacks and vegetables home. And the best part about it? It was handed out free! Packaging nowadays barely constitutes any part of the product cost. Think of all those chocolate wrappers and biscuit packets we toss away so freely. And vendors are willing to hand out as many bags you would like for the groceries. Plastic so thin that it can fly off with a wave of your hand. Often accompanied by warnings stating ‘keep away from small children, lest they choke themselves’. These warnings don’t mention animals whose food is often mixed up with these highly toxic bags.

So what’s the solution to this plastic problem?

flickr cc Bill Ohl

flickr cc Bill Ohl

Is doing away with plastic feasible? We have witnessed a number of unsuccessful attempts by local authorities to implement bans on plastic bags. Plastic bags and packaging do have a great value addition in our lives. So to my mind it seems quite impossible to do away with this polymer completely.

I pestered my grandparents with a stream of questions to understand how they managed without plastic bags. They used cloth bags made at home or bought from stores. These were used over and over again to carry all the groceries and other essential items.

Fresh food, street food, sweets and fried items like pakodas were all packed in newspapers or brown paper and carried home. They had the additional advantage of keeping the food hot and fresh! Similarly all other shopping like dress materials, cosmetics etc. were wrapped in paper and handed over to the customer. And the customers, a.k.a. our elders managed just fine. In the absence of plastic bottles and tetra packs, everything from juice, milk to soft drinks was sold in glass bottles which were returnable. Crates could be bought at an initial safety deposit and all the bottles had to be returned to reclaim the deposit. In case of milk, a smooth recycling system functioned where the previous day’s bottles were kept outside the house for the milk man to replace with a fresh supply of milk bottles. In fact, even now when we buy a glass bottle of Rio or Fanta it is the unsaid protocol that they are meant to be consumed on the spot and returned to the seller immediately.

Our wasteful, use and throw culture has largely originated from the introduction of the plastic material in our daily lives. A material which is so inexpensive that it has close to no value in the eyes of the consumer was introduced by Reliance industries in 1982. Since then it has penetrated our lives in every form and function.

The feasibility of extreme measures like banning a material which is so deeply embedded in our lives is very doubtful. So while we wait for a more efficient waste management system from the authorities, we as consumers have to make an attempt to control the waste we generate on a daily basis.

The foremost way to do that is to think before you throw. Think about whether the material can be used once more for the same or for a different purpose. Think about what that material does to the soil once it reaches the ocean or the landfill. Think about small simple ways in which you can start reducing the amount of plastic bags you use. It goes without saying that we need to make aware buying choices too. Every choice to not buy and not throw goes a long way in reducing the pressure on the planet (and the government!) to dispense with the garbage we so thoughtlessly throw away.

So, think before you throw.

Mehak Malhotra is a student of Economics studying at Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum and has been passionate about recycling since a young age. She is currently volunteering with the Beauty of Recycling initiative run by eCoexist and Studio Alternatives. Read more about The Beauty of Recycling at or email at

Featured image flickr cc Jedimentat44



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