City Zen – Does our city need plastic surgery?


Life in plastic isn't really fantastic

Life in plastic isn’t really fantastic

Until the mid-eighties, our groceries came bagged in old newspapers. We brought home rice and sugar in packages emblazoned with last week’s headlines. Fish and meat were first wrapped in banana leaves and then with brown paper. Beer bottles were surreptitiously swathed in double-rolls of weekend editions. Steel tumblers clanged at the nearby restaurant, then not yet suffixed with Darshini. Weddings were messy affairs even then but stray dogs industriously polished off discarded meals while cows champed on leaf plates.

Recycling waste used to be a tradition, until we turned a new leaf.

We found the panacea to our packaging woes in a diaphanous polymer, which we found both convenient and nifty. Not to mention waterproof and leak-proof. The discovery that you could pack runny rasam in it turned every humble eatery into a thriving takeaway joint. Temples considered it a godsend. Containers of prasadam from Tirupati, Sringeri and Sabarimala soon sanctified diasporic abodes in Newark, Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur.

The new material also called a truce to the clash of civilizations. Western tourists journeying to the heartland of cholera finally felt safe because we were bottling water as if Mother Nature had decreed it. Delighted soft-drink manufacturers carted their bubblies to Kaziranga and Kabini, Leh and Ranthambhore sans the headache of shipping used bottles back to the plants. Disposable convenience, a First World privilege, was ours to enjoy.

How many times we have watched the sun go down behind Ulsoor Lake, unperturbed by the bobbing remnants of last year’s Ganeshas, oblivious to the lurking evil of bisphenol A, and shrugging off killjoy reports of lives degraded by toxic garbage dumped in Mavallipura. We sipped our lattes (served in plastic-capped cups with plastic stirrers), rolled up the car windows, turned on the air-conditioner, and turned up the music (Dylan croaked “Forget about today until tomorrow”). Beside the road plastic bags danced romantically a la American Beauty.

Time has soured this love affair. Plastic now chokes our drains. The night air is rank with fumes from garbage heaps that will smoulder for a thousand years before the plastic degrades completely. And these, we are informed, are only the obvious ill-effects. Like an overstaying guest, plastic trash has usurped our lives. You can chuck it out any time you like, but it will never leave.

Ireland has taxed plastic bags, driving people to switch to cloth. Closer home, scientists are experimenting with fungi that can digest plastic while opportunistic entrepreneurs are laying roads with polymerized bitumen, made with plastic waste.

Inspired, I bought a cloth bag for Rs 25 at the supermarket. The girl at the counter, by force of habit, wrapped each onion tenderly in plastic (at that price, it may as well be gold foil).

That’s one way to get it off my chest. But remember, we sent our corporators to San Francisco to learn how to manage the issue. When they returned, in addition to confirming that the Golden Gate Bridge is indeed painted international orange, they proposed a garbage cess.

All right, but will the trash still go to the landfills? How about getting on with those long-overdue recycling plants instead of trying to please the gods?

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