More than two decades since the Nilgiris went “plastic-free”, regarded the first such initiative in Tamil Nadu, the district’s watercourses, forests and reservoirs continue to be choked by single-use plastics, and increasingly, with discarded glass liquor bottles. Now there is a State-wide ban on single-use plastic products. Yet the situation on the ground is alarming.
This is best illustrated by the recent direction of the Madras High Court to the Collectors of the Nilgiris, neighbouring Coimbatore and Dindigul, to keep a strict vigil at the entry points of the Nilgiris and Kodaikanal to ensure the banned use-and-throw plastic products do not get to the picturesque hill stations.
The scale of the problem in the Nilgiris was laid bare when the autopsies of a number of Indian gaurs revealed the animals had consumed plastic items prior to their deaths. Forest Department officials said the ubiquitous dumping of plastic waste, including in reserve forests, meant trying to police the behaviour of local residents and tourists was almost impossible.
“Even when dumping of waste happens near residential areas, and we know who is responsible, it is almost impossible to get people to alter behaviour, as they invariably pick a quarrel with Forest Department staff. Unless there are workable alternatives offered to these households and businesses by the civic bodies, people will continue to dump waste illegally in open areas,” said a forest ranger of the Nilgiris forest division.
While the district administration has had some success in reducing the quantity of plastic waste generated, the prevalence of single-use plastic and liquor bottles in the district’s extremely important river-courses also serve as a constant reminder of the problem. P.J. Vasanthan, a trustee of Clean Coonoor, an NGO working on cleaning up the Coonoor river and preventing open-dumping of garbage, said multilayer plastic posed the biggest challenge to recyclers. “While most plastic waste generated in households in Coonoor does get recycled or processed at facilities whenever possible, plastic bottles, packaging of snack items and tetra packs often get disposed of by tourists along the district’s highways and into forest areas. Another problem is tipplers who consume alcohol in deserted areas dump glass bottles, chips packets and plastic cups,” said Mr. Vasanthan.
Supriya Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary, Environment, Climate and Forests Department, who was the Collector when the “Plastic-free Nilgiris” campaign was started in 2000, said the problems were apparent even back then. “We noticed even back then that cattle and even wildlife were found dead with plastic in their stomachs, whiles lakes, streams and waterbodies were also being choked with plastic,” she said.
According to Ms. Sahu, one of the problems limiting the success of the plastic ban in the Nilgiris was that neighboring States did not have such strong legislation against the use of single-use plastics, meaning that tourists who visit the district invariably bring in significant amounts of waste that get discarded here. She added meetings are being held with merchants’ associations, hotel and restaurant owners as well as businesses to come up with solutions to packaging of products without the use of plastic items.
Predictably however, there has been a significant pushback from the merchants’ associations. A member of an association in Udhagamandalam said it was unfair that local merchants were being discouraged from using plastic packaging while large multinational companies could sell their products with no such restrictions. “How can you unfairly handicap local merchants while not doing the same for companies that pack biscuits, chips and snacks in plastic,” wondered the merchant, who said rules needed to be uniform for all manufacturers and businesses.
Most small businesses, like bakeries that use plastic packaging, do not possess packaging licences, said officials. As a result, strict fines have been imposed since the beginning of the year on businesses violating the rules.
One of the few successes the district has witnessed since the “plastic-free Nilgiris” badge was adopted is the mobilisation of local residents to assist the government in minimising illegal dumping of waste and unnecessary plastic use. One such campaign was the Make Ooty Beautiful (MOB) project, spearheaded by Shobana Chandrashekar, who, with other residents, has been conducting clean-ups across Udhagamandalam, and helped to institute a waste disposal mechanism in a locality where open defecation and open waste dumping was prevalent.
Ms. Chandrashekar said she “definitely thinks the plastic-free Nilgiris campaign has had some positive impact” as it ensured major restaurant chains that have set up in the Nilgiris do not use banned packaging material.
“There have been a number of successes such as the Green brigade — a collective of local residents who can inform the district administration of violations, and who can also approach local businesses to educate them on the ban on single-use plastics,” she said. While the enforcement of the plastic ban was being carried, she said it needed stepping up to discourage merchants from flouting rules, like the rule against selling water and soft drinks in PET bottles.