Jess Warren interviews Karuna Singh, Earth Day Network’s Regional Director for Asia, and Country Director for India.
Over the eight years you’ve been director for the Earth Day network in Asia, what is the biggest change you have seen?
The biggest change I’ve seen is awareness at grassroot level. Increasingly, people are realising the fact that everyone has a role to play. Originally, people thought that pollution was about factories and only for the government to intervene and control. Now we are seeing the recognition that it is everyone’s role and that every act counts. We are seeing a rise in knowledge that is bringing about action.
How do you continue the impact of Earth Day beyond April 22nd to maintain a consciousness and sustained action to environmental issues?
For us, Earth Day is every day. Every day we have ongoing programmes, whether that’s beach clean-ups and competitions, we are doing something every day throughout the year. Whilst I only became the Director for Asia in November 2017, it is important to recognise there is no use in looking after one country. We need to look after the whole region. Recently we had a conclave of students from five countries that border India working together. We need to recognise that the environment knows no political borders. Air and water are fluid; constantly moving and will not stay within the confines of one country. That is why it is important to join together.
In Vietnam, street food is such a big part of daily life, and with this comes an excessive usage of plastic. Plastic boxes with plastic forks, in a plastic bag with a plastic straw and a plastic cup are given out by local street vendors hundreds of times a day. How do you envision this changing for those where non-plastic alternatives aren’t economically viable for their small business?
At the Earth Day Network, we have interviewed street vendors and it comes down to a question of economics. When I was a child in Calcutta, syrupy sweets were given out in clay pots. Now these pots have become more expensive, and so we are appealing for people to support the potters. This will reduce the price of clay pots, making them a more economically viable solution once again. We can have awareness of environmental issues, but until alternatives become economically viable, many street vendors lack the choice.
In Calcutta they love to eat, and so we gave a whole presentation about the plastic we use whilst eating; buying fish, street food, coconut water with plastic straws. When people see the level of plastic they are consuming on a daily basis, it really raises awareness. What we need now is more choice.
How do you see a change in plastic consumption occurring in Vietnam, is it the consumer that leads the way, or the shops and businesses that must set the example?
It comes from both sides. The refuse the straw programme is appealing to large hotels. By not putting straws on the table, people will no longer pick them up automatically. Whereas those that desperately need a straw will ask. Overall, it reduces the number of straws used.
Some argue that by giving plastics an economic value upon return, such as returning a used water bottle in exchange for a small sum, may be the way to stop people disregarding them. What do you think of this?
We are trying to make this happen with milk dairies in India. We have written to large dairies to engage in a programme where used pouches can be exchanged for a free pouch of milk. We are waiting on more progress, but we already have one large dairy in Goa doing this. By using bigger dairies to start with, this will make collecting the used pouches easier.
Some say that plastic is not inherently bad, it’s what we do with plastic after it has been used that is the problem. How much do you agree with this statement?
I agree with this, it’s a miracle material; light, scratch resistant, hard wearing. But it’s the management of plastic that is a problem. The man who made plastic was not an evil genius, he was brilliant and we need plastic, but the problem is we don’t manage the waste properly.
Asides from plastic consumption, what do you think consumers should be doing to help conserve the planet more?
There’s so much, you can compost kitchen waste, new restaurants can source food from within a 100km radius, thus reducing food miles and transportation costs. Government buildings can have terraced gardens for employees to grow produce, supplying them with fresh food. You can also use big hospitals to grow food on, which can also be very therapeutic for patients. Another idea is car sharing. We have a programme called ‘Backseat Buddies’ that encourages school children who live in the same building to travel together in a car.
With the rise in ethical and conscious business practices, is it possible to reverse the damage that the human population has caused to the planet?
It depends on the speed with which we act. We are quickly heading toward the tipping point. Unless the human race acts quickly, it will be doomsday. This isn’t about saving the Earth. The Earth will remain, like Mars or Jupiter. But these planets are uninhabitable, and soon the Earth will be too unless we act. This is a question of whether the human species can exist on Earth. This is our biggest concern, because the damage that has been caused is anthropogenic. We have caused this; plastics are only 50-60 years old, we created these. Yet there are rays of hope. Where the ozone layer was once severely damaged, we have settled this. I am hoping we will be able to do this as well.
Mopeds are such a common mode of transport in SE Asia, particularly here in Ho Chi Minh City, how do you see this improving and emissions lowering when so many people are reliant on a cheap and easily accessible mode of transport?
Electric mopeds are the way forward. India has electric cars; technology is so brilliant. We have such fabulous minds, it’s just a question of applying them. When electric vehicles are given an incentive, such as reductions in tax, it begins to interest people.
As Earth Day fast approaches its 50th Anniversary, how do you see the issue of single-use plastic being resolved in countries that are so heavily reliant on it?
I see it happening within the next two years. India has banned single-use plastic in schools, and there has been a rise in large fines for those caught using plastic. We are all in it together and we will do it. At the Earth Day Network, we believe in networking, and so we want to build relationships with organisations in Vietnam in order to take it forward.