Joydeep Dasgupta

Published: April 25, 2023

This story was Produced by News Sense and supported by Climate Tracker and Break Free From Plastic.

New Town, the smart city in Kolkata in India, has emerged as a model city in the fight against plastic pollution. It has adopted innovative measures to encourage residents to adopt a plastic-free lifestyle.

One of these measures is the installation of artificial intelligence (AI) cameras that can detect the use of plastic in a marketplace and alert accordingly. People traditionally use plastic bags when purchasing wet goods such as fish and meat, and the proponents of New Town want to change that.

AI cameras were installed in 2022 inside CB Community Market in order to inculcate the habit of plastic-free shopping. If caught using plastic, a seller has to pay a fine of Rupees 500 and a buyer has to pay a penalty of Rupees 50.

Mr. Debashis Sen, IAS, Chairman, NKDA and MD, HIDCO (West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited), said they monitored that no plastic was used in any form in the market for two years. HIDCO also engaged a non-governmental organization to sensitize shop keepers, buyers and residents.

Mr. Debashis Sen, IAS

“Seven thousand households were sensitized by giving them free cloth bags. Now after two years, we can say that people have adopted plastic-free shopping to a large extent,” added Sen, a senior bureaucrat also known as the Architect of New Town.

Following its success at CB Community Market, the AI and deep learning-enabled plastic detection system will also be implemented in other markets in New Town.

AI Camera at CB Market

“We are living in a smart city and it is quite important how consciously we as citizens abandon plastic use,” said New Town resident Mr. Anupam Gorui. “AI camera installation is no doubt a welcoming move by the authorities to develop a habit of plastic-free shopping among the residents, but until and unless plastics are banned, people in some way or other find a way out to use it ,” he added.

The plastic consumption in India has grown at a significant pace over the past five years, and so has its waste output. India generates around 3.4 million tons of plastic waste a year, and only 30% of it is recycled. Over a five-year period, the plastic consumption in the country has risen at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.7 per cent to 14 MT in the financial year 2016-17 to 20 million tonnes in 2019-20.

India’s plastic waste output also doubled between the periods, according to the report published by Marico Innovation Foundation in January 2023.

So, apart from imposing a ban on single-use plastic, the government has been working on creating a statutory framework for including the use of biodegradable plastics as an alternative material.

Other solutions in New Town

But effective policy interventions are needed which can be used to create sustained impacts. The innovative interventions in New Town are certainly inspiring to find solutions to the growing plastic crisis.

In New Town, joggers and morning walkers are also encouraged to pick up plastic waste in parks and neighborhoods and deposit them at a nearby kiosk. As the initiative is voluntary, no data can be collected as to what amount of waste people have collected, but such moves can certainly raise awareness as well develop the mindset of citizens to keep their surroundings clean and plastic free.

Streets in the city are built with plastic chips to enhance waterproofing. A 400-meter stretch of road in New Town, popularly known as ‘Smart Street’, is being laid using discarded plastic.

Plastic waste collected from offices, houses, markets and restaurants are shredded into small pieces. Then, they are added to the bitumen mix to lay the stretch. This enhances the lifespan of the road since plastic is water resistant, and decreases the odds of potholes.

Pure plastic roads should use compatible plastics, because when plastics of different types are melted together to make a single composite plastic, they may separate and cause structural defects which leads to premature failure. Sometimes, the plastic which is used in the road construction may turn into micro-plastics and can be able to pollute the soil and water bodies beneath it.

Moreover, plastic chappals (slippers) made from plastic waste collected in the city are distributed among the civic and home workers. The recycled plastic chappals are also available at Zero Waste Shop in New Town at the cost of 80 rupees (1 dollar) for anyone who wishes to buy one.

The scheme of segregating waste at source was also introduced in New Town. Every household was given two bins to keep wet and dry waste separately. Civic workers collect waste every morning.

New Town was created in the eastern outskirts of Kolkata, largest city in eastern India, in the early 2000s as demand for housing settlements and commercial spaces grew. New Town was declared a smart city in 2015.

Ms. Suchismita Roy, a resident of New Town and restaurant entrepreneur, said it is the collective responsibility of every resident to follow the guidelines introduced by the authorities. “It is for us to ensure a better environment for our future generations and therefore we follow all the rules introduced by the authorities from time to time. We carry our own bags while shopping for vegetables, fish, meat or sweets,” she said.

Economic empowerment

Meanwhile, women from remote parts of West Bengal are discovering their hidden talents and weaving a better future for themselves and their families, thanks to a non-profit initiative.

They are making artistic crafts such as hand bags, purses, carpets, mats and even designer articles with upcycled plastic materials that are collected from households and factories. So far, more than 80 women who joined the initiative have been financially empowered while creating designs for the world market and raising awareness about upcycling.

These women are from marginalized communities and are working under the banner of 8Finity. 8Finity is the brainchild of Kolkata-based women social entrepreneur Kavita Kajaria.

8Finity was planned by my passion to address plastic pollution and the desire to tap the skill and talent of the women from the marginalized communities, who also lead the entire initiative on the ground,” said Kajaria

We have empowered more than 80 women, created awareness about upcycling and provided a platform to showcase local artisanal craft, while our design team puts together styles and designs keeping the latest trend and functionality in mind. Emphasis is laid on details like finishing and quality,” she added.

Mithu Das, one of the workers, said the initiative changed her life. “We are earning and leading a dignified life for ourselves, supporting our home and education of our children. I also hope many women join us and get financial freedom,” she said.