How the Indian state of Sikkim is working to end plastic pollution


The tiny state of Sikkim nestled in the Himalayas in northeastern India has been leading a green revolution of its own kind. Despite being small and isolated, and with its people leading their lives in extremely tough mountainous terrain, Sikkim has emerged as one of India’s environmental leaders.
Sikkim, which in 1998 became the first Indian state to ban disposable plastic bags, is also among the first to target single-use plastic bottles. In 2016, Sikkim took two major decisions. It banned the use of packaged drinking water in government offices and government events. Second, it banned the use of Styrofoam and thermocol disposable plates and cutlery in the entire state in a move to cut down toxic plastic pollution and tackle its ever-increasing garbage problem.
The state government took up these drastic initiatives on the grounds that disposable products which were in vogue in both rural and urban areas were environmentally hazardous, generated a huge quantity of municipal waste and were claiming a lot of space in landfills. And on plastic water bottles, the government held the view that that the rampant usage of packaged drinking water in departmental meetings and functions was adding an unnecessary burden on the dump yards so it banned their use in official functions.
Sikkim is a small and biodiversity-rich area and hence has limited space for garbage dumps. It has already stretched its limit and opting for new landfill sites is neither an easy option nor permissible as it would mean taking over forest land that’s home to endangered wildlife.
It is estimated that with the growing population and rising consumerism, the world’s plastic bottle consumption will increase to half a trillion annually by 2021. Studies have also suggested that some compounds in plastics may threaten human health.
With massive awareness drives and penalties, this ban has been impactful. Sikkim’s resident are now opting for plates made of paper, leaf, bagasse and even areca nut. Government offices have switched to alternatives like filtered water, large reusable dispensers and reusable water bottles for functions and meetings.
However, with the large number of tourists visiting Sikkim, it is challenging to control the use of plastic water bottles. The government is considering banning plastic bottles in the entire state, meaning that tourists would be need to get their drinking water from filters in hotels, restaurants and public spaces.
Sikkim is a state with many firsts when it comes to green policies. It is the first Indian state to aim to be fully organic, which means all the food produced in Sikkim should soon be free of pesticides. It is also India’s first state to ban open defecation. Urinating in public can cost Rs 500 ($7.50). The government made it mandatory to have a sanitary toilet at home to be eligible for any benefits from the government or to contest in village-level elections. This has resulted in the success of the programme which was envisaged years before Swachch Bharat Campaign (Clean India Campaign) was even conceptualized. The state even banned firecrackers in 2014 to contain noise and air pollution.
“What happened was that in one episode in the 1990s, plastic carry bags got washed down due to heavy rainstorm. Drains got blocked, which resulted in huge landslide. Some people died too. This triggered the state government to ban plastic bags,” said Rajendra P Gurung, CEO, Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Sikkim (ECOSS), a local NGO that works in Sikkim.
Gangtok-based ECOSS is working with other organizations like WWF, Swachch Bharat Campaign on the Zero Waste Himalaya project, which is aiming to tackle garbage in the Himalayan regions of Bhutan, India and Nepal. The project has been actively campaigning and lobbying with the state government for effective implementation of the ban in Sikkim.
Sikkim is a state with many firsts when it comes to green policies.
According to Gurung, even though municipal staff is doing multiple rounds of garbage collection daily in the morning, only 20 per cent to 30 per cent of waste gets recycled. More needs to be done to make Sikkim truly plastic free.
“Instead of plastic bags, people are opting for non-woven polypropylene bags which have a texture of cloth but are actually plastic. People are using it thinking it is eco-friendly. So government needs to strengthen implementation more seriously and promote alternative options,” said Gurung. “Also multi-layered plastics like tetrapacks, chips packets are a problem. People eat lot of instant noodles here, so that is also adding to non-biodegradable waste,” he added.
Shakti Singh Choudhury, Mayor of Gangtok Municipal Corporation acknowledged the problem of polypropylene bags. “They are being used on a small scale. They feel like cloth so people think it is not bad for environment. But we are working towards gradually phasing it out too. We are asking people to carry their own cloth bags when they go out for shopping,” Choudhury said.
Studies by Delhi-based Toxics Link and Pune-based eCoexist NGOs conducted in 2014 and 2018, respectively, showed that, despite the continued use of plastic bags, Sikkim has fared quite well in the implementation of its green policies. eCoexist’s study found that around 66 per cent of shops in Sikkim used paper bags or newspapers and around 34 per cent used plastic bags, which includes non-woven bags.
Through penalties, state-level policies and a mass awareness programme, this tiny state is well on its way to becoming free of the scourge of plastic pollution.
India is the host of World Environment Day 2018. The theme this year is #BeatPlasticPollution.