IN PUNJAB’S Muktsar, the people’s fight against plastic is all about a number: Rs 5. That’s what a team of five residents, led by a doctor and assisted by two college students, is asking dealers at vegetable markets to pay for every cloth bag it distributes to replace plastic bags.
The money goes into expanding its drive against plastic bags and plates to dairies and langars, and on Facebook and YouTube. So much so, local officials acknowledge that this citizen initiative, labelled “Panch rupaiye mein dharti bachao (Save the earth with Rs 5)”, has helped them reduce the use of plastic bags in town by half in a year.
“We began this fight against plastic bags on our own in April 2018, when we started visiting the sabzi mandis every Saturday and distributed cloth bags at a nominal price of Rs 5. These polybags are a great headache as they cannot be disposed of and lead to the death of cattle that eat garbage in these bags at dumps,” says Dr Seema Goyal, a medical officer at the civil hospital, who is the face of this campaign.
Also on the team are government teachers Harpinder Kaur Rana and Navdeep Sukhi, and shopkeeper Gursewak Singh. On call are Jashandeep Jimmy and Anurag Sharma, the students who help the group reach out on social media through Facebook Live sessions and YouTube videos.
“We got the first batch of cloth for free from a Bathinda tent house and a Muktsar trader. We got multi-compartment bags stitched and charged a nominal price — only so that people don’t take us for granted. So far, we have distributed over 10,000 bags after making people aware of the harmful effects of plastic,” says Rana. Today, district officials say, the use of plastic bags in the city has sharply dipped.
“Last year, the total use of plastic bags was approximately 3,850 kg per month, which has now reduced to 1,780 kg. Wholesale dealers have started placing orders for disposable jute bags. Our estimate is that approximately 1,290 kg of jute bags have replaced plastic bags. Now our concern is the plastic bags that are still being used… we have instructed wholesalers to not sell polybags of less than 11 microns in the market,” says Paramjeet Brar, sanitary inspector, Muktsar Municipal Council.
“The awareness drive has started giving results. Earlier, I used to spend nearly Rs 500 every month on plastic bags, which has come down to Rs 150. A number of buyers come with cloth bags these days to purchase vegetables,” says Ashok Garg, president, Muktsar sabzi mandi association.
Team member Sukhi says the campaign has spread to dairies where vendors are asking customers to use metal containers. “A number of dairies sell unbranded milk in plastic bags tied with rubber bands. We told them that milk stored in plastic bags can be cancerous. Now many vendors display our message outside their dairies — ‘Let us hold the milk can again, let us not take milk in plastic bags’. Many of them are offering an extra 50 ml per litre free to those who bring their own utensils,” says Sukhi. The campaign’s latest focus is on how to reduce the use of plastic plates and cups at langars. “We have started ‘Shudh Patar (Clean Utensils)’ for which we have procured 500 steel plates. They will be given on rent to organisations that set up langars, at Re 1 per plate,” says Goyal.
“Last year, our team held a signature campaign against snacks packed in cheap plastic bags. We collected a total of 20,000 signatures from schoolchildren asking the Prime Minister to ban such packaging material,” she says.
For the initiative, the team says it doesn’t accept donations and mostly dips into its own pockets or “contributions in kind from a network of around 100 friends”. “For instance, one friend sponsored the steel plates,” says Goyal, adding that she has spent about Rs 20,000 of her own so far.
Says Deputy Commissioner M K Aravind Kumar: “We have already started a drive to end the clutter of plastic in Muktsar for which regular checks are done at shops. It is really appreciable that a few residents have initiated such a strong campaign that has helped our drive.”