My walk to my office pauses at a fruit vendor every day so that I can buy a plateful of colourful fruits for my colleague. He packs the mixed fruits in a thermocol bowl that he places inside a plastic carry bag. Instead of confronting him about the plastic ban in Bengaluru, I started carrying a steel tiffin.
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Like me, most people, to save their time and energy, avoid a discussion on why using polythene bag is harmful to the environment.
But not Odette Katrak, a resident of Green Glen Layout, Bellandur who has been the force behind convincing 20 plus vendors to switch to sustainable options in less than a month.
Seeing the rampant use of plastic where she lives despite a 2016 ban, Odette raised concerns in Beautiful Bengaluru, a citizen-driven group that works towards resolving different issues like water scarcity, tree felling and waste disposal.
Instead of merely hurling abuses at the not-so-efficient enforcement agencies and vendors that still give out plastic bags openly, the members offered multiple solutions to tackle the problem on their WhatsApp group.
Giving an insight into a lengthy discussion that took place in May, Odette, who is the co-founder of the organisation tells The Better India (TBI):
The most common eco-friendly alternative suggested by people was a paper bag. Though biodegradable and less harmful than plastic, at the end of the day it is putting a burden on trees. Besides, the paper manufacturing process consumes water and electricity, thus increasing the overall carbon footprint.
Further explaining the main objective behind the mission, the 55-year-old adds, “If the eco-friendly alternative is generating waste, then it is, at best, an interim step. We are aiming for reusable options instead of disposable ones for long-term and sustainable relief.”
Getting To The Root of Problem
To understand why an illegal item is still being used, Odette and her environmentally conscious friends spoke to both vendors and consumers.
We realised that there is not enough awareness among people regarding the legal and environmental repercussions of using plastic bags. The ones who were aware did not care enough due to several loose ends, ranging from poor implementation to smuggling bags from across borders, says Odette.
They also learnt about what happens during the regular inspections done by health inspectors. Since Bellandur is a huge ward, vendors get enough time to hide the carry bags before the official comes to them. A few days later, life goes back to normal as vendors start giving out the polythene, reveals Odette.
To make people realise their irresponsible consumption and shopping habits, the members decided to go beyond mass awareness drives with a complete plan in place to weed plastic out of their layout.
Switching to Greener Options, One Vendor At A Time
“If I stop giving plastic bags, I will lose customers.”
“The entire country is using plastic, what difference will it make if I do not use it.”
“I am ready to discontinue plastic bags, provided the alternative is affordable and readily available.”
These were the initial and most common reactions cum excuses given by the vendors who were reluctant to join Beautiful Bengaluru’s mission. To tackle these issues, Odette made a comprehensive plan catering to vendors selling different items like coconut, fruits, vegetables, flowers and food.
To begin with, they informed all the vendors about the fines and health implications of using plastic. Next, the team got in touch with a wholesale vendor who was giving cloth bags at a reasonable price.
Not sure if the mission would work out, the vendors purchased a few cloth bags at Rs 3-5 each and charged customers for them. Some of them increased the price of their products by Rs 3, and some gave the cloth bags for free and bore the cost.
Meanwhile, the coconut vendors switched to paper straws charging customers Rs 2 for it. One of the vendors started keeping steel glasses to serve coconut water. Looking at the green ways the vendors were conducting their business, some customers began to carry their own bottles.
The vendor selling flowers replaced plastic bags with reusable trays to store the flowers and started using banana leaves to pack the flowers. Reusable or paper plates replaced the plastic/foil plates at stalls selling momos, chaat and other items.
We told a harmless lie to every vendor by saying the other vendors have already made the change. If you do not change immediately, someone might report it to the health inspector. It seemed to work as within two days the shift was made, says Odette.
Simultaneously, the members of the group made posters mentioning the fines, asking people to bring their bags. They also put up certain signs at the carts.
For instance, at coconut stalls, the sign was ‘No plastic straw. Fine Rs 100 on using it. Rs 2 for paper straw.’
For the first few days, Odette and some residents stood with the vendors and every time a consumer asked for a plastic bag, they informed them about the plastic ban.
While we faced a backlash from certain people, most of them understood and assured us to not ask for plastic bags, she says.
To make the movement a sustainable one, Odette and other members keep a vigil on the vendors and try to resolve their issues whenever needed.
The project was implemented on 1 June this year, and precisely a month later, 25 vendors have discontinued the use of plastic bags as most of the customers are now bringing their own bags.
A significant impact can be seen at one of the coconut vendor’s stalls. Within the first week, four out of 10 customers refused the paper straw, and two weeks later the number increased to seven.
As a business strategy, a vendor selling momos now gives one momo for free if customers get their container and charge Rs 3 for packing the momos in an aluminium foil. All the momo vendors have switched from banned aluminium foil plates and pouches to reusable paper/steel plates.
By giving up plastics, the vendors have also recorded a profit in their business. One coconut vendor earned a profit of Rs 800 by charging customers for the paper straws. Similarly, the vendors charging for cloth bags are making profits too and this model is one reason why vendors were willing to make the shift.
After convincing the vendors, Odette and volunteers at her organisation are now promoting the BYOC (Bring Your Own Container) challenge among the residents of Bellandur.
While we did have a good plan, we had not expected reformation in such a short time, and this only goes to show that making a habit change is possible. As customers, we should appreciate the vendors for making a switch by carrying our bags or containers whenever we shop, signs off Odette.
To know more about the initiative, you can write to Odette at email@example.com
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)