By Sunil K. Vaidya
A theli (cloth bag) was an integral part of my childhood. We carried that handmade cotton bag on every shopping trip — to buy milk bottles, vegetables, groceries and even firecrackers before Diwali.I have always been an advocate of the cotton theli. Over time, it has become increasingly difficult to shun the use of polythene bags. It’s easy to turn away from numbers that spell disaster but the residents of UAE use 13 billion plastic bags a year. Imagine how much of that ends up in the ocean, choking sea creatures.
Personally, my biggest hurdle in switching entirely to a plastic-free existence is my houseboy, Santhaya. He cannot fathom my aversion to polythene when every other household, he tells me, uses plastic bags from the hypermarket as bin liners. His perpetual complaint is the shortage of plastic bags in the house. It is a task for me to convince Santhaya that we absolutely can live without plastic bags.
I use cloth bags wherever I can. But despite Santhaya’s opposition, I am determined to stop using plastic bags altogether. I recently struck off ‘plastic bag dispenser’ from my pending ‘to-buy’ list. Since my return to Dubai from Muscat three years ago, an IKEA plastic bag dispenser had been on my mind. I had left the old one behind in Muscat and for some reason or the other, have not managed to buy one yet. It is a personal mission to make Santhaya understand that we can replace plastic bags with those made from old newspapers — a tedious exercise, granted, but all you need is glue and a refresher course on how to fold news pages into bags.
We have plenty of newspapers at home. And my insistence on not discarding old copies in the chute with the rest of the garbage also baffles him. His argument against the use of newspaper bags is: how will we collect wet waste in a paper bag? But it wasn’t difficult to show him the benefits of segregating trash. Wet waste can be flushed down the toilet. It is another matter that he didn’t look too enamoured with the idea.
Like most people, Santhaya also extensively uses WhatsApp, so, now and then, he seeks an explanation for a forwarded message he receives. He reckons that I, being a journalist, know ‘everything’. It is futile to tell him what a misplaced belief that is. The other day he asked me to explain a message that read something like this: ‘a cotton bag weighs much less than a mobile in your pocket, carry one with you when you go for shopping’. I explained to him that this message was part of a campaign to take cloth bags when you go shopping instead of bringing home plastic bags.
“But we need plastic bags for the garbage, so what’s wrong in getting them from the supermarket?” he argued in Hindi. His retort answered my curiosity about shoppers who ask for extra plastic bags at cash counters. I wonder, how do we convince them? We need to stop using plastic — for our sake, and to limit its already excessive damage on the environment.
In a recent campaign, Dubai Municipality with Lulu Hypermarket collected nearly one million plastic bottles in five days, totalling a whopping 2,000kg. Now, I am happy to carry cotton bags on my weekly trips to Barsha for groceries. On one such trip, I saw a young Indian couple and realised I had a long way to go. Not only were they carrying big cloth bags, they were equipped with smaller, reusable ones in which they weighed their vegetables. The employee at the counter attached the barcoded price sticker on those cloth bags. Easy. They seemed to be completely plastic-free shoppers. There was a lesson there for me. While I take big cotton bags to carry all the shopping, I use smaller white polythene bags to pack different vegetables on which the vendors stick the price tags.
Five decades ago, we were shoppers sans plastic bags. We would stuff vegetables in one cotton bag. And we didn’t shop once a week. We went to the vegetable market everyday because the concept of refrigerating vegetables and dairy products wasn’t as it is today. Everything was fresh, everything was organic.
Now, in Dubai, from my 17th floor balcony, each time I see a plastic bag floating in the air — and I see them quite often — I feel like leaping out to grab it before it lands in the lake below my apartment. Earth Days will come and go. But my resolve to shun plastic gets stronger every time I see this dismal reality. And using cloth bags on every grocery run — to offset the carbon footprint of even the manufacturing of cloth bags — is just the start.
Sunil is the sports editor of KT and an environmentalist at heart