“BEAT plastic pollution” is the one request of the United Nations as the planet marks World Environment Day on Tuesday. The plea to reject single-use plastics comes at a time when parts of the world are drowning in the pollutant with little signs of slowing up.
“A healthy planet is essential for a prosperous and peaceful future,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement. “Microplastics in the sea now outnumber stars in our galaxy.”
Guterres, in his appeal for the environment, says at the current rate, by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic than fish.
The host of this year’s World Environment Day is India – a country that’s home to 14 of the world’s 15 worst cities for dirty air in a recent World Health Organization survey.
The capital, New Delhi, is the sixth the world’s most polluted city and its poorest inhabitants are on the front line of the pollution pandemic.
Plastic bottles, bags, food wrappers and other detritus blocking drains and leaving stinking sewer water clogging the roads is a familiar site in the Delhi slum of Taimur Nagar.
Stray dogs, goats and cows munch the plastic waste as toddlers run around trying to retrieve footballs and water bottles.
“You can see how bad the conditions are here. It’s completely choked with plastic,” said Bhola Ram, shaking his head.
Taimur Nagar is one of many slums in Delhi and countless other Indian cities struggling to cope with waste, particularly the plastic pollution.
Despite a pledge by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to clean up the country by the time his term ends in 2019, India continues to generate around 5.6 million tonnes of plastic waste annually and clean-up groups and NGOs are losing the battle.
Delhi banned plastic bags in 2009 and later expanded it to all plastic packaging and single-use disposable plastic, but the ban is rarely enforced. Plastic bags are still the staple for carrying vegetables, fruit, meat and restaurant takeaways.
Taimur Nagar’s residents know little of the hazards of non-biodegradable plastic to the water supply and the animals sat around.
Used to the filth, residents say they are resigned to their fate.
“It’s like living in hell. You can see there is plastic garbage everywhere. We are poor and we have no choice but to live and die here,” said Shreepal Singh, a waste dealer.
According to one resident, the pollution has drastically increased in recent years. The drains once flowed and the area wasn’t dirty, mother of three, Saroj Sharma told AFP. But that all changed when more people started moving to the now-densely populated slum.
In the rainy season, grimy water from sewers enters homes with families having to cope with the sludge and stench.
“My granddaughter keeps falling sick. All the children here frequently miss school because they are down with diarrhoea or malaria,” said housewife Birambati Devi as pigs feasted on a stinking garbage dump nearby.
— UN Environment (@UNEnvironment) June 4, 2018
As the planet turns its focus to World Environment Day, the residents of Taimur Nagar don’t hold much hope for the future.
“I don’t think the city will ever get cleaned. The conditions will never improve,” said Sallu Chowdhary, who wore a black mask as he set out for college.
“No one is serious about this problem, not even the locals who have to suffer every day.”
Additional reporting by AFP.