Akhila Vijayaraghavan of the ReefWatch Marine Conservation, a non-profit firm working towards protecting the coasts of India, has a very direct question.
“Did you know Chennai ranks among the top three cities in India that contribute towards plastic pollution in the country?” she asks.
Based in the Andaman Islands, the organisation is now all set to combat the growing menace of singleuse plastics — namely plastic straws — across India, with a campaign kickstarting in Chennai. Innovatively titled The Last Straw, the project is aiming towards a future whereas all restaurants, pubs, cafes and hotels in the city will go straw-free.
Expanding further, Vijyaraghavan, who is the Marketing and Outreach manager for the non-profit organisation, says, “We know that it is not entirely possible, as eateries will need straws to serve certain forms of shakes or drinks.
Therefore, we are advocating the alternative usage of paper straws, and are even putting establishments in touch with manufacturers who have been vetted for quality,” adding that a host of well-known Chennai eateries have already come on board the policy, and have been given a month to phase out the plastic usage.
But isn’t plastic comparably cheaper to paper? “Indeed, a plastic straw costs anywhere between 25p. and 75p,whereas a paper one costs between ₹1.50 and ₹2. We are banking on the hospitality industry having a sense of social conscience or putting the cost on the customer - ultimately, the environmental and health cost for the continued use of plastic is greater than the business cost,” adds Vijayaraghavan.
She explains that the team has chosen Chennai after a similar, one-day campaign in Mumbai on the occasion of World Oceans’ Day, a couple of years ago. “Being home to the Marina, one of the longest beaches in the world, Chennai is ideal to begin this campaign. The idea is to call out to student volunteers in the city, who can come aboard this venture and help us spread awareness.
Straws are not biodegradable and are harmful to the environment;and although they are recyclable, they slip through the cracks due to their small size. Those that don’t end up in a landfill, are dumped into the oceans, get broken into smaller pieces to be consumed by the fish, and we, in turn, consume the fish. They also harm other sea creatures like turtles and dolphins, by getting lodged in their lungs and noses,” she notes.
The Reef Watch Marine Conservation team reiterates that while the city has a sense of environmentalism, the lack of government pressure and pro-activity leave it lagging behind the likes of Bengaluru or Mumbai. “Once all the popular restaurants are in (some are on a trial basis now), we will next target the local shops and dhabas, coconut vendors, and so on, urging them to go straw-free or use alternative measures that we will provide them with at subsidised rates. Our posters and social media campaign with the hashtag #TheLastStraw are already gaining traction. The plan is to rope in some big names, hold some fundraisers and improve awareness, after which we will submit a petition to the government. Obviously, this change cannot happen overnight… but we are willing to be patient,” she adds.