When will India become 100 plastic free

Plastic-free: India's long road to a clean future

The 32-year-old on the dusty country road in northern India wraps her scarf a little tighter around her face. This is the only way she can protect herself against the wind that blows relentlessly hot towards her. Even now, the sun is far from at its zenith, it is already 45 degrees Celsius here.

The woman is called Rajeshwari Singh. She has no choice, she has to go down this street now. Because Rajeshwari Singh has a mission and the climate cannot dissuade it from it either.

Their march takes them over a distance of 1,100 kilometers - from the West Indian city of Vadodara to the capital New Delhi.

In the fight against plastic waste, Rajeshwari Singh (center) has come a long way: from Vadodara in the west to the capital New Delhi

She is doing this, she says, to fight against the "threat" posed by plastic waste to India.

"The main thing for me on the trip is to reach everyone because the plastic problem is spreading all over India," says Singh. She also makes this clear on the t-shirt she wears. The slogans of their journey are emblazoned on a white background: "let's walk for awareness" and "my waste, my responsibility", which means something like: "let's run for clarification" and "my garbage, my responsibility".

In a global comparison, Indians consume significantly less plastic per capita than the average (11 kg compared to 28 kg). Nevertheless, 15,000 tons of plastic waste are generated across the country every day.

Of this, 9,000 tons will be collected and recycled, at least the government says. However, environmentalists and citizens' associations do not really want to believe that. They assume that the actual amount is less and the rest ends up in landfills or directly in the countryside.

Burn garbage and twigs for brushing teeth

As the migration progresses, the full extent of the problem becomes apparent again and again. Singh reaches a landfill where plastic waste is piled up. The dump is located right next to a national road. In the scorching heat, garbage collectors rummage through the waste for recyclable materials. Overall, it is estimated that there are more than 1.5 million people across the country who earn their living in this way.

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Parts of the rubbish are on fire, infected to reduce the sheer mass of the rubbish. Rajeshwari Singh fixes her cloth over her mouth and nose to avoid the stinking, black smoke that is created when burning plastic.

About 12 years ago, she vowed to avoid plastic in the future, says Singh. At that time she became aware of the danger to the environment. With the non-profit school that she now runs, Singh and her colleagues try every day to educate garbage collectors about the dangers of the material on which they live.

Toothbrushes can also be made of wood instead of plastic - these women use special branches to brush their teeth

Even today on the dusty street, people keep joining the missionary in matters of plastic and accompanying her for a while. There are government officials, but also villagers and environmental activists. Singh encourages her entourage to take responsibility themselves and to follow their example.

There is also a group of girls among the people who go along with the crusader about plastic avoidance. You have come to welcome Singh with fresh rosebuds. 18-year-old Sarita Devi is also there.

"It is impressive to see that a woman is going from Vadodara to New Delhi alone," she says with beaming eyes. "Plastics are part of our everyday life, but we can try to stop using them."

To show that there is another way, the wandering activist distributes plastic alternatives. The girls become happy owners of new, plastic-free cloth bags. In return, two elderly women give Singh twigs that can be used to clean teeth. They represent a clean, natural alternative to a major contributor to India's plastic problem. It is estimated that around 150 million toothbrushes are thrown in the trash in India every month.

Off to New Delhi

Punctually, forty-five days after she left, Singh arrives at the United Nations office in New Delhi. India is hosting World Environment Day here. The theme this year is: "Fight plastic waste".

Many have come to greet Rajeshwari Singh. Not only UN officials, but also prominent supporters like Bollywood actress Diya Mirza, environmental activists and students. Among them is 12-year-old Aditya Mukherjee from New Delhi. He is fighting to ensure that plastic straws are no longer used. Like toothbrushes, they end up in the trash en masse.

Bollywood star Diya Mirza (l.) Welcomes environmentalist Rajeshwari Singh (r.)

"My campaign is simple to implement. I go to restaurants and educate them. I say, stop using plastic straws. And if your customer insists, give them paper straws instead," says Mukherjee. The feedback so far would have been largely positive.

India has made a national commitment to phasing out all single-use plastics by 2022. The country's prime minister, Narendra Modi, said in a speech in New Delhi that the world must make a decision that will "determine our common future".

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"The decision may not be easy, but with awareness, technology and a true global partnership, I am sure we can make the right decisions," said Modi. The prime minister promised that he would ban single-use plastics from his own life.

It will be some time before the country is actually plastic-free. For Singh this is one more reason to continue her mission. Even if the wind blows against you, no matter how hot it is.

In fact, she is already planning the next march. This time it will cover a distance of 2,856 kilometers, from Kashmir in the far north of the country to Kanyakumari on the southern tip.

"My fight against plastic has only just begun," she says. "There is still a long way to go. Let's fight the threat posed by plastic together."

All over the world, people are committed to preventing plastic waste:

  • Fight against the plastic flood

    More trash than fish?

    No less than eight million tons of plastic waste end up in the world's oceans every year. If nothing is done, more plastic could swim in the oceans than fish by 2050. Much of the garbage collects in several large eddies far out in the sea. Beaches, such as the Midway Islands in the Pacific Ocean, are also affected.

  • Fight against the plastic flood

    Falling for plastic

    Plastic breaks down into small particles over time, which marine animals often mistake for food. According to a study by the University of Uppsala, plastic ingested as food leads to stunted growth and an increased death rate in fish. Fish even seem to prefer plastic to their regular diet. Plastic in fish could also pose a health risk to humans.

  • Fight against the plastic flood

    Edible alternatives

    The Ocean Conservancy estimates that plastic waste has already affected more than 690 species of marine animals. In an effort to reduce waste, some companies have developed alternatives. For example, the Delray Beach Brewery in Florida: Edible carriers for six-packs made from residues such as wheat and barley are to replace the old plastic carriers. Production is planned for October.

  • Fight against the plastic flood

    Biodegradable packaging

    Disposable plastic bags make up a large proportion of the trash in the oceans. A Polish company is countering this problem with a biodegradable alternative: Instead of plastic, wheat bran is used. According to inventor Jerzy Wysocki, the Biotrem packaging can be used in the oven and freezer and should decompose in 30 days - and it is also edible.

  • Fight against the plastic flood

    Is bamboo the salvation?

    The fast growing bamboo is another alternative to plastic and can be used to make shower curtains, toothbrushes and even computer accessories. Tonggu Jiangqiao, a bamboo and wood industry company, pictured above, started mass production of keyboards, mice and monitor enclosures in 2008.

  • Fight against the plastic flood

    Ladle for the ocean

    Alternatives may help reduce waste, but millions of tons of plastic will continue to float in the world's oceans for centuries. The Dutch project Ocean Cleanup aims to use a 100-kilometer-long floating dam system to catch the plastic in the oceans without endangering fish or other marine animals. The application in the Pacific Ocean should be implemented by 2020.

  • Fight against the plastic flood

    Fashion made from trash

    Some of the plastic could be recycled and reused in other forms, for example for flower pots, as insulation material or - in the case of the Spanish company Ecoalf - for clothing. The fashion label from Madrid uses plastic waste that is collected by fishing boats in the Mediterranean and turns it into polyester fibers - which in turn are processed into jackets, backpacks or other fashion items.

  • Fight against the plastic flood

    Reduce, reuse, recycle

    Plastic waste can also be reused in its original form: At the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 - 20 years after the first World Oceans Day - gigantic fish from plastic bottles were exhibited along the promenade in Rio de Janeiro.

    Author: Martin Kuebler / okz