How the plastic ban in Mumbai will protect you from diarrhoea

In India, one in five children under the age of two suffer from severe diarrhoea every year, endangering their lives 8.5 fold and often resulting in stunted growth and other harmful long term effects. Rotavirus – a diarrhoeal infection common in infants claims the lives of 98,000 toddlers annually. In cases where the rotavirus infection is battled and cured, the risk of rapid dehydration is still very high, leaving children susceptible to dehydration and malnourishment because of a damaged gut. The ugly truth is that India accounts for 20% of the 500,000+ children under five years of age, who lose their lives annually due to severe dehydration caused by diarrhoea.

If you’re reading this, it’s likely you’re in a place of privilege, with access to clean water to drink, a doctor on call whenever you’re ill and little idea of what happens to the garbage in your trashcan, once it leaves your home. So it’s probably hard to imagine that the plastic waste you generate could potentially be a large contributor to making diarrhoea a killer disease in India. But the staggering numbers tell a different story.

Globally speaking, India is in the third place amongst nations battling under-five deaths due to diarrhoea. Primarily linked to open defecation and unsafe or mismanaged sanitation, diarrhoea has contributed to a whopping 15.5% — 1316 million — deaths in India from 1990 to 2016. Mumbai alone generates 500 metric tonnes of Maharashtra’s colossal 1,200 tonnes of plastic waste every single day. This accounts for 10% of the state’s total waste, which inevitably clogs drainage systems, overflowing landfills and eventually, the ocean too.

There’s a seemingly less obvious link between plastic waste management and water pollution, but it is one that is actually contributing to what has become India’s second largest killer disease. Solid waste management poses one of India’s most critical problems today. Exploding population, cities crawling with development and infrastructural growth, and a culture increasingly dependent on fast and instant everything, has meant a sharp increase in single-use plastics and non-biodegradable packaging material that, though convenient, are not recyclable and have a created a disposal and management nightmare.

Several recent awareness campaigns have shed significant light on how plastic waste is killing our oceans. But trouble stems closer home, amongst smaller waterways and rivers that are sources of water that we consume in various forms. According to some reports, nearly 80% of water pollution is caused by domestic sewage that is largely untreated, carries everything from solid waste and plastic to bacterial contaminants and toxicants, and flows into rivers. Industrial waste choked with plastic and other effluents is known to contaminate ground and surface water too, which is still a source of drinking water for thousands of citizens.

The great deluge of 2005, the glaring and unforgettable evidence of Mumbai’s severely compromised sanitation and waterways should have been a wake-up call to begin a process of de-clogging. Killing more than 900 people and damages mounting up to about $2 billion, the disaster brought sanitation and health front and centre of discussions about civic infrastructure management. And yet, more than a decade later, every monsoon has the entire city in a panic about whether we will withstand the battering rainfall once again.

Mumbai’s recent plastic ban has seen most citizens respond largely favourably, while a significant lobbying force from industries is still challenging the move. The move to ban plastic was prompted largely due to the severe marine pollution around Mumbai and includes all single use disposable plastic products such as polythene bags, plastic cups and bottles, plastic straws, plates and other disposable cutlery and Styrofoam packaging that are choking the cities already strained drainage systems and waterways. Throughout the nation, rivers have become unfortunate receptacles for the ever increasing untreated sewage, disposable waste, industrial effluents, all of which contains tonnes of plastic. A study from way back in 2009 predicted that Mumbaikars may die younger than most other Indians based on research that compared the health of the ecology around waterways, and the health of the community living off it.

Forced to do away with single-use plastic, citizens will be encouraged to look at alternatives like recycling plastic where possible, switching to alternatives like glass and steel that are immensely reusable, and hopefully to think about the impact that plastic waste generated by every human being has on the environment, the health of our waterways and causing serious diseases that are killing thousands. Reduce, reuse and recycle should be a household mantra that grows from the grassroots up. At a larger level, India is already looking at ways to build cheaper, yet sturdier and more sustainable roads that will use recycled plastic. A team in the Thiagarajar College of Engineering, Madurai, is working on a patented technology to convert disposed plastic waste into building material that can be used to construct roads, as Tamil Nadu too gears up for a plastic ban.

Another area that begs to be looked at closely, and presents a huge opportunity for development focus is sanitation. 1 in 2 Indians still do not have access to safe sanitation facilities. Whether in managing septic tanks (so as to ensure that the waste is adequately treated before it is discharged) or addressing the still-persistent open defecation issue, simple, safe and sustainable measures are the need of the hour.

Banning the use of single-use plastic is perhaps just step one. Some argue that the crux of the problem is not the use of plastic itself but in collection, segregation, management and disposal of waste. But it is a necessary shift. One that citizens can directly step in and take on, and hold each other accountable for. It is a starting point in a long chain of measures needed to arrest and potentially reverse the effects of decades of mismanaged water pollution, and the growing risk of death due to diarrhoea.