India’s Scouts & Guides turn the tide on single-use plastics

Walking the streets of some of India's largest cities, your eyes are immediately drawn to the sight of single-use plastics – from bottles to bags – discarded by the pavements, gutters, and storefronts. According to official estimates, the country generated close to 3.4 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2019-2020, a figure that has more than doubled in five years. 

Plastics may be part of everyday life, but they also threaten to destroy it. Research by The Plastic Soup Foundation found that the tiny plastic particles never fully decompose and can be found everywhere: in our water, soil, air. Microplastics are reaching even the most unlikely of places, from the polar ice caps to human blood. 

With a surge in single-use plastic already choking cities and waterways, the United Nations Environment Programme and World Scouting launched the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge, a global youth movement to fight plastic pollution. Through it, young people learn about plastic pollution and are encouraged to play active roles in resolving this pressing environmental issue and its devastating impact on our world. 

The Bharat Scouts and Guides in India were quick to take up the challenge and help foster a generation of young leaders committed to changing the world, one action at a time. 

Eye-opening coastal clean-ups  

Among the earliest activities that Bharat Scouts and Guides undertook was to organise beach clean-ups around the country. In August 2019, 350 Scouts worked with the Red Cross and Puri District Administration in Odisha to clear massive amounts of trash from local beaches. 

A month later – on International Coastal Clean-Up Day –, the Bharat Scouts and Guides launched India’s National Plastic Tide Turners Clean-Up Campaign. Volunteers included 50,000 Scouts, their parents, teachers, and friends, as well as local authorities who helped ensure the proper handling of waste collected. 

Scouts were up and ready as early as six in the morning, eager to get started. It was an eye-opening experience for many, as close to 5,000 tonnes of plastic were collected in a single day around the country. Despite this, maintaining plastic-free coastal lines has proven tough. 

But Scouts are not easily deterred. Holding strong to the value of being a friend to nature, the volunteers continued to promote small-scale awareness initiatives in their communities on the impact of plastic pollution. These efforts have paid off with visible – although gradual – shifts in behaviour. Littering on beaches has reduced substantially, and many local communities have begun their own beach cleaning and maintenance events. 

By taking the lead in environmental action, the Bharat Scouts and Guides are also contributing to Earth Tribe, a global movement that teaches young people about the importance of preserving and protecting our planet. 

Digital advocates for the environment 

When the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill, Bharat Scouts and Guides responded by using webinars and workshops to ensure that awareness and sustainable education efforts on plastic pollution kept going. 

Also embracing digital communication channels were the Bharat Guides from Carmel Convent School, including Aanya Swami, who took to YouTube to post informative videos on the various types of microplastics and their damage to the environment. 

Aanya and her friends – Nikita, Devanshi and Sia Gupta – also shed light on the plastics found in ordinary household items and shared clever sustainable alternatives to plastics. These included pens made from recycled newspaper and mustard seeds, which were not only biodegradable but also encouraged plant growth when disposed. 

“Many people don’t know that chewing gum contains plastic.  Manufacturers do not disclose the specific ingredient list because the gum base is considered a trade secret,” said Aanya. “Certain face wash brands also contain tiny microbeads that can be very hard to sift out from the water system.” 

Despite such complications, members of the Bharat Scouts and Guides keep working hard to raise awareness of the damage caused by single-use plastics. They even introduced a “Hero Level”, recognising the Scouts who have gone above and beyond the activities listed in the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge to become champions in their communities. 

“My Bottle, My Pride” 

For Rover Scout Mohammed Abrar Shariff, the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge marked the start of a journey towards self-discovery and inspired action. As became more aware of the negative and harmful effects of plastic on human life, something stirred inside of him. 

Inspired by childhood memories of carrying around his own reusable water bottle, he launched the “My Bottle My Pride” campaign. Run over two weeks, the campaign was simple and brilliant. It encouraged the use of reusable water bottles, especially among young people. 

It involved an online challenge, where people were encouraged to post photos of themselves with their reusable water bottles on social media, share the reasons why they chose to use a reusable bottle, and tag their friends and family to do the same. 

“I carry my own sustainable kit whenever I travel, and make sure I share the reasons why I do this by talking to people around me. This way, I hope I can influence their travel habits, especially by replacing single-use plastic bottles with steel or copper water bottles for everyday use,” Abrar shared. 

Within the first two weeks of February 2022, nearly 400 people took part – some as young as six. It was a hit with younger generations, with nearly 70% of participants aged between 13 and 30. 

Such small but significant efforts to reduce our dependency on single-use plastic bottles show that it is possible for change to happen when we take action. 

The resilience and commitment shown by the Bharat Scouts and Guides for the elimination of single-use plastic is nothing short of empowering. Like the mustard seed, their actions may have begun modestly, but with the right effort and environment, they will grow and blossom for all to see. 

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