The more things change, the more they stay the same. The saying holds true in the case of plastic pollution for Supriya Sahu, an IAS officer. As a collector in early 2000, she successfully led a campaign for plastic-free Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu. Today, more than two decades later, she is again leading the charge against plastic pollution in the entire state. In an interview with Rajiv Tikoo, she talks about what motivated her then, particularly in the absence of laws, and what keeps her going today with the help of technological innovations that can serve as examples for adoption by other states. Edited excerpts:
When you, as a collector, successfully led a campaign for plastic-free Nilgiris in early 2000, you were probably ahead of the times. What was the trigger?
Disturbing visuals of the post-mortem of cattle and elephants, establishing the bitter fact that animals were feeding on plastic, were the prime triggers for the campaign. With water bodies being choked with plastic, the situation was such that I could almost visualise a scenario of death by plastic, and it hit me very hard. It got me thinking about the future of our beautiful district and we decided to act on it.
We were indeed ahead of the times. We neither had any plastic ban notifications, nor any guidelines for reference. We realised that to do something we had to bring together local communities, especially Panchayats and municipalities. Back then it was easier to convince Gram Sabhas as well as municipalities to pass resolutions to ban plastics.
What were the major issues then and how did you address these?
The major threats were plastic bags, plates and disposable cups and we targeted these three items specifically, and then figured out solutions for an alternatives for the banned plastic items.
For each of these challenges, we were able to find a local solution. For example, for plastic bags, a readymade alternative of paper bags was available. We then stationed our volunteers at the district entry points to check incoming vehicles. We requested tourists to hand over their plastic bags and in return take cloth bags. These cloth bags served as a mode of spreading awareness against plastics. We had them inscribed with a message – “Say No to Plastic” – which instantly resonated with people, and the initiative went on to become a
How do you feel when you look back from today’s drive against plastic pollution?
We have definitely come a full circle. When I look back now, almost 20 years later, we have perhaps not truly travelled the entirety of the path. Rather than controlling it, we seem to have gotten more used to plastic. People find it very difficult to make a simple lifestyle change of refraining from using a plastic bag or a plastic bottle. A lot of time has been lost, but we cannot let this deter us from our objective.
How are you building on your old learnings?
Something concrete had to be done. This realisation gave birth to our Meendum Manjappai (yellow cloth bag) campaign, which was launched by the Chief Minister, Mr. M. K. Stalin, in December 2022. This campaign is a call for “back to basics”. Manjappai is strongly rooted in the state’s tradition since times immemorial. It has been a cultural identity for people across Tamil Nadu. Considered auspicious, the bags used to be invariably yellow in colour. One could see that return gifts at most weddings were given in manjappai.
We wanted to do something to connect with people at a personal level, to bring back a sense of nostalgia. Yes, sharing data and logic are practical approaches, but it is important for people to relate to what we are trying to convey. We want this to be a people’s movement, but keeping in line with the changes of this era and employing modern operational approaches. To begin with, we have installed around 100 manjappai vending machines across the state backed by strong communication campaigns. These work like any other vending machine. The bags are priced at Rs 10 each.
What about the industrial sector? For example, packaging sector accounts for more than half of India’s plastic consumption.
We are working in tandem with the industry. We have reached out to Zomato and Swiggy and hotel associations. They are in sync with our thoughts and agree that sustainable packaging is the only way forward. However, there are issues of cost since production volume is not at scale and the cost gets passed on to the consumer, which is a deterrent. Change is surely happening but gradually. I am positive that we are moving in the right direction to find alternative solutions. The government has identified and banned 14 items of plastic, including bags, paper cups, banners and flags. As a run up to this, the state is supporting agencies that make big, sustainable cloth banners. In Tirupur, a company has invented new technology for screen printing on sustainable cloth, and T-shirts are being made out of shredded plastic bottles. But the ultimate solution in my view is to make less and use less.
It is almost one year since the central government banned Single Use Plastic (SUP). Why is it not a success and what can be done?
We can look at it in two ways. One is to look at the regulation. Now, all the states are at par. Previously Tamil Nadu was an exception with the ban having been imposed much earlier than the country-wide ban, thereby making it difficult to curb the steady inflow of plastics from neighbouring states.
The second aspect is the enforcement of the ban. There are definitely grey areas and I am candid about it. There are many manufacturers claiming to produce eco-friendly bags. To ensure their genuineness, the bags have to be certified by the Central Institute of Petrochemicals Engineering & Technology (CIPET), a central government agency. Though the testing process takes long, it is a mandatory requirement. Every bag has to have a QR code, which can be scanned to confirm its authenticity. In spite of these elaborate steps, QR codes are being faked. There are many challenges, but yet we have to keep the hope alive that we will find a solution one way or the other. Perseverance is the key here. In terms of certification, a lot needs to be done. The need of the hour is to have more stringent certification. Developing a good methodology is also critical to identify fake certificates.
Indian plastic industry is estimated to be worth more than Rs 3 lakh crore. How are you dealing with the pushback?
There is no denying that a strong lobbying for plastics does exist. It is the hard truth, one that you cannot negate. There will be pushback and strong opposition. We have had several rounds of discussions with plastic manufacturing industry suppliers. Why are you closing our units? Why don’t you emphasise on recycling? Why can’t these products be picked up by ragpickers? These are the questions that we are being asked often and sometimes they may be right in asking them, but mostly it doesn’t help in doing away with SUPs, which is the foremost agenda here. In spite of all these hurdles, it is important to pursue the agenda of completely banning any form of SUP. It is also important to sit up and notice, and listen to their problems and keep trying relentlessly to find helpful solutions.
What kind of steps is Tamil Nadu taking to get future-ready?
We are now working towards finding doable solutions in the circularity space. We are setting up a waste to wealth initiative in Tamil Nadu, including a waste exchange bureau which will be an online platform. Given the large number of bulk waste generators like hotels, there are organisations that convert this waste into CNG gas. In a timely move, the central government has come out with the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) guidelines, which concentrate largely on the circularity business.
We are also undertaking a big marine plastic pollution campaign. The state government is setting up the Tamil Nadu fishnet initiative. Given that plastic nets are a big threat to the ocean resources, we are encouraging our fishermen to bring back all the plastic nets and we pay them for it. This is a buy-back arrangement with incentives, which motivates fishermen seeing that they benefit out of it, too. We have also taken up the blue beach initiative on 10 beaches across Tamil Nadu, and these will be transformed into plastic-free beaches very soon.