In India, a trio of unlikely heroes wages war on plastic

In this photo taken May 29, 2018, Aditya Mukarji speaks to the Associated Press while sitting in Delhi Club House restaurant in Gurgaon, India. Some fancy restaurants in and around New Delhi are doing away with plastic straws and replacing them with paper straws. That’s largely because of Aditya Mukarji, a student who launched his campaign after seeing a video of two veterinarians trying to remove a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken June 1, 2018, young girls climb down from a heap of plastic garbage, near a garbage dump in New Delhi, India. India will host U.N. World Environment Day on June 5. This year’s theme is “Beat Plastic Pollution.” (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken May 28, 2018, Ram Nath, 40, who makes a living from recycling trash, rummages for plastic bottles and other reusable trash while rowing a makeshift boat through murky waters of Yamuna, India's sacred river that flows through the capital of New Delhi. India produces more than 68 million tons of trash every day. More than 17,000 tons of it is plastic. That requires immense dumps, which in cities like New Delhi, mean hills of stinking trash up to 50 meters tall. Last year, two people were killed when a large part of one of the city’s dumps crashed down onto them. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken May 28, 2018, Ram Nath, 40, sorts reusable trash he fished out from Yamuna, India's sacred river that flows through the capital of New Delhi. For more than 25 years, Ram Nath has lived on the banks of the Yamuna River under a 19th-century iron bridge. Each morning, the wiry man walks a few steps from his makeshift hut and enters the black, sludgy waters of one of India’s most polluted rivers. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken June 1, 2018, a ragpicker collects used plastic bottles in New Delhi, India. India produces more than 68 million tons of trash every day. More than 17,000 tons of it is plastic. That requires immense dumps, which in cities like New Delhi, mean hills of stinking trash up to 50 meters tall. Last year, two people were killed when a large part of one of the city’s dumps crashed down onto them. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken May 28, 2018, Vaibhav Jaiswal, co-founder of Prakritii, or nature, a company that manufactures eco-friendly dinnerware, inspects his products in his warehouse in New Delhi, India. While Prakritii initially made most of its income from exports to Europe and the U.S., Bardhan said the market for eco-friendly products is growing in India, especially among younger people who value quality over price. His company generates more than $150,000 in revenue each year. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken May 28, 2018, Sanjay Aggarwal, inspects the products he purchased from Prakritii, or nature, a company that manufactures eco-friendly dinnerware at the company's warehouse in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken June 1, 2018, a young girls walks past a heap of plastic garbage which is to be sold to recyclers, near a garbage dump in New Delhi, India. India will host U.N. World Environment Day on June 5. This year’s theme is “Beat Plastic Pollution.” (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken May 29, 2018, paper straws and wooden stirrers are seen on the tables at Delhi Club House restaurant in Gurgaon, India. Some fancy restaurants in and around New Delhi are doing away with plastic straws and replacing them with paper straws. That’s largely because of Aditya Mukarji, a student who launched his campaign after seeing a video of two veterinarians trying to remove a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken June 1, 2018, a ragpicker is silhouetted as he searches for reusable material at a garbage dump in New Delhi, India. India produces more than 68 million tons of trash every day. More than 17,000 tons of it is plastic. That requires immense dumps, which in cities like New Delhi, mean hills of stinking trash up to 50 meters tall. Last year, two people were killed when a large part of one of the city’s dumps crashed down onto them. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken June 1, 2018, sacks filled with reusable trash are lying around the houses of garbage collectors near a garbage dump in New Delhi, India. India will host U.N. World Environment Day on June 5. This year’s theme is “Beat Plastic Pollution.” (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken June 1, 2018, a family of trash collectors sort reusable trash which they collected from a garbage dump in New Delhi, India. India produces more than 68 million tons of trash every day. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken May 28, 2018, Vaibhav Jaiswal, left, and Amardeep Bardhan, second left, founders of Prakritii, or nature, a company that manufactures eco-friendly dinnerware, showcase biodegradable alternatives to disposable plastic products to a customer, at his office in New Delhi, India. While Prakritii initially made most of its income from exports to Europe and the U.S., Bardhan said the market for eco-friendly products is growing in India, especially among younger people who value quality over price. His company generates more than $150,000 in revenue each year. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Members of National Green Corps clean up plastic garbage along the Musi river in Hyderabad, India, Sunday, June 3, 2018. India is the global host for the forthcoming environmental day celebrations on June 5, 2018, with a theme "Beat Plastic Pollution" and launched an awareness program on environmental protection. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)
In this photo taken May 28, 2018, Ram Nath, 40, left, who makes a living from recycling trash, receives a bidi from another garbage collector, before going out to look for plastic bottles and other reusable trash through murky waters of Yamuna, India's sacred river that flows through the capital of New Delhi. For more than 25 years, Ram Nath has lived on the banks of the Yamuna River under a 19th-century iron bridge. Each morning, the wiry man walks a few steps from his makeshift hut and enters the black, sludgy waters of one of India’s most polluted rivers. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken May 29, 2018, Aditya Mukarji, left, a 9th grade student who has been urging various restaurants to stop using plastic straws meets Bhupender Kumar, manager of Delhi Club House restaurant which has recently switched to using paper straws and wooden stirrers at their restaurant instead of plastic, in Gurgaon, India. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
In this photo taken May 29, 2018, a waiter is about to serve a drink with paper straws and drinks on his plate at Delhi Club House restaurant. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Members of National Green Corps clean up plastic garbage along the Musi river in Hyderabad, India, Sunday, June 3, 2018. India is the global host for the forthcoming environmental day celebrations on june 5, 2018 with a theme "Beat Plastic Pollution" and launched an awareness program on environmental protection. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)

NEW DELHI — For more than 25 years, Ram Nath has lived on the banks of the Yamuna River under a 19th-century iron bridge. Each morning, the wiry man walks a few steps from his makeshift hut and enters the black, sludgy waters of one of India's most polluted rivers. He is fishing for trash.

"This is the only work we have," said the 40-year-old, sorting through a pile of plastic bottles, bags, and cast-off electronics.

Hundreds of garbage collectors live on the Yamuna's banks in New Delhi, making $2 to $4 per day recycling plastic waste collected from the river. While Nath doesn't think of himself as an environmentalist, he is one of a handful of New Delhi residents waging war against the tsunami of plastic threatening to swamp India. They include a 9th-grade student who convinces posh restaurants to give up plastic straws and a businessman whose company makes plates and bowls from palm leaves.

India, which hosts U.N. World Environment Day on June 5, can use all the help it can get. This year's theme is "Beat Plastic Pollution."

With more than 15 million people, New Delhi and its surrounding cities produce an estimated 17,000 tons of trash daily, according to Indian officials and environmentalists. That requires immense dumps, hills of stinking trash that measure up to 50 meters tall. Last year, two people were killed when a large part of one of the city's dumps crashed down onto them.

"All these products which we use because of convenience take many hundreds of years" to even partially decompose, said Chitra Mukherjee, an environmental expert and head of operations at Chintan.

Mukherjee, who has spent years raising awareness and creating localized efforts to curb plastic pollution credits the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government for making waste management and pollution a more serious issue.

"It is a collaborative effort between not only bureaucrats, but researchers, environmentalists who have been brought on board to make some progressive policies," she said.

But policy and impact can mean different things. Like the repeated bans in New Delhi on using thin plastic bags. The latest regulation came with a hefty $75 fine. Yet a trip to nearly any shop in New Delhi makes clear how widely the ban is flouted.

Amardeep Bardhan believes he can make a difference.

His company, Prakritii, makes plates and bowls from the leaves of south India's areca palm trees. The plateware, which has the feel of thick paper plates, biodegrades in seven to ten days, he said. The company doesn't harvest any palm trees, but waits for leaves to fall to the ground.

"In this entire process, we are not harming the environment," said Bardhan. "We are generating something from the waste, people are loving it, and then it goes back as a waste."

While Prakritii initially made most of its income from exports to Europe and the U.S., Bardhan said the market for eco-friendly products is growing in India, especially among younger people who value quality over price. His company generates more than $150,000 in revenue each year.

In places, the trend is growing.

Some fancy restaurants in and around New Delhi are doing away with plastic straws and replacing them with paper straws. That's largely because of Aditya Mukarji, a student who launched his campaign after seeing a video of two veterinarians trying to remove a plastic straw from a turtle's nose.

"People listen more to children bringing up environmental concerns," said Mukarji, who has helped replace more than 500,000 plastic straws at restaurants and hotels since he started his campaign in March.

If nothing else, India hosting the World Environment Day has made environmental protection a hot topic — at least briefly — in a country where trash is everywhere. Tuesday will see numerous official environmental gatherings across India, clean up campaigns along the Yamuna and mall food courts agreeing to forgo plastic plateware for one day.

The hope is that everything doesn't go back to normal on Wednesday.

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