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Walking to beat plastic pollution

Jasvinder Sehgal New Delhi
July 4, 2018

Taking a long walk might not seem like an obvious way to stop plastic pollution, but one woman in India is giving it a try. And she's attracting attention.

Child waste-pickers holding a sack
There are estimated to be more than 1.5 million waste-pickers in India. Plastic is among the main items they gather Image: Jasvinder Sehgal

On a dusty highway in northern India, a 32-year-old woman draws her scarf tightly around her face to protect it from the searing wind. It's only late morning, but already 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) outside.

Rajeshwari Singh is on a mission. She's doing a gruelling 1,100-kilometer (683-mile) walk from western India's Vadodara City to the country's capital New Delhi.

All in the name of fighting India's plastic "menace," she says.

"This journey is about going and reaching out to grassroots people, because the plastic problem issue prevails everywhere in India," explains Singh, who has donned a white t-shirt with the slogans "let's walk for awareness" and "my waste, my responsibility."

A woman surrounded by schoolchildren walks along a road
Rajeshwari Singh is on a mission. She's doing a gruelling 1,100-kilometer walk from western India's Vadodara City to the country's capital New Delhi. All in the name of fighting India's plastic "menace," she says.Image: Jasvinder Sehgal

While Indians use considerably less plastic per capita than the global average (11 kilograms compared to 28 kilograms, or 24 to 61 pounds), the country still generates 15,000 tons of plastic waste every day.

The government says 9,000 tons is collected and recycled, although civil society groups believe the real figure is lower. The rest ends up in landfills or littering the landscape. The extent of the problem is apparent on Singh's route.

Burning trash and toothbrush twigs

As she walks along a national highway, she passes a landfill piled high with plastic waste.

Waste-pickers, of whom there are estimated to be more than 1.5 million across the country, scour the site for recyclable refuse, including plastic.

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Some of it has been set alight in an effort to reduce the size of the heap, and Singh pulls her scarf over her mouth and nose even tighter to mask the toxic smell and dark black smoke.

Around 12 years ago, Singh — who runs a nonprofit mobile school initiative in Vadodara to impart basic knowledge to waste-pickers — vowed to avoid plastic after becoming aware of just how polluting it was.

Two elderly ladies with sticks in their mouths, next to Rajeshwari Singh
Toothbrushes don't have to be made from plastic, which takes centuries to break down, but can be made from wood. In some cases, special twigs do the jobImage: Jasvinder Sehgal

As she walks, she encourages the crowd of local government officials, nearby villagers and activists that have joined her for part of her journey to "become responsible citizens" and follow her lead.

A group of young girls has also come to greet the anti-plastic crusader with fresh rose buds. Eighteen-year-old Sarita Devi is inspired by the message.

Read more:India's polluted Ganges River threatens people's livelihoods 

"It's really remarkable to see a woman walking all alone from Vadodara to New Delhi. Plastics are an integral part of our life, but if we try, we can refrain from using them," Devi told DW.

Singh distributes plastic alternatives, which activists en-route help to organize. Devi and some other women and young children become the happy recipients of cloth bags.

In return, two elderly ladies gift the crusader a bundle of teeth-cleaning neem twigs as an alternative to more conventional toothbrushes, which make up a major contribution to plastic waste.

Some estimates suggest as many as 150 million toothbrushes are tossed into the garbage in India every month.

Destination New Delhi

Forty-five days after she set out, Singh arrives at the United Nations' office in New Delhi, where India is hosting World Environment Day. The theme is "Beat Plastic Pollution."

UN officials, celebrities such as Bollywood actress Diya Mirza, environmental activists and school students have gathered to greet her.

Rajeshwari Singh with Diya Mirza
Rajeshwari Singh was welcomed in Bollywood star Diya MirzaImage: Jasvinder Sehgal

Among them is 12-year-old Aditya Mukherjee, a New Delhi schoolboy who is pushing for an end to the use of plastic straws, which are another major contributor to plastic pollution in India.

"My campaign is to go to hospitality institutions, with a simple two-step process: Stop using plastic straws, and if the customer absolutely insists, then give him or her an alternative paper straw," said Mukherjee, adding that he has a lot of positive response so far.

Read more: Environmental protest in India turns deadly

At the national level, India has pledged to eliminate all single-use plastic by 2022. Speaking in New Delhi, the country's Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the world has a choice to make that would "define our collective future."

"The choice may not be easy — but through awareness, technology, and a genuine global partnership, I am sure we can make the right choices," Modi said, adding that he would also be banning single-use plastics from his own life.

India has a long way to go before it reaches its plastic-free goals. For Singh, that's all the more reason to continue her mission.

She's already planning another walk covering the 2,856 kilometers from Kashmir in the country's far north, to Kanyakumari at its southern tip.

"My war against plastic has just commenced, and there are miles to go ... Let's fight collectively against the plastic menace."

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