Houston Years ago, my one-liner response to questions about how I had chosen a career as an organizer of unions and community groups was simple: I was looking for a job where I didn’t have to do heavy lifting. I had to drop that joke, when ACORN offices in the late 70s and 80s followed our Brooklyn office’s lead and began selling bulk cartons of paper to other nonprofits and businesses. I would show up to visit offices for various reasons, and invariable be drafted into a paper pickup or unloading a truck full of paper in the offices. Turned out, organizing involved heavy lifting after all. I thought of this as I chuckled during a call with our India head organizers this week, where all of a sudden we were knee deep in a discussion about plastics.
We organize associations of informal workers in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru, many thousands of whom are street vendors and hawkers. Increasingly, our cities, among the largest in the world, have banned single-use plastics in all forms: bags, straws, cutlery, you name it. This follows the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2021, in India. As a membership organization, this problem had soared to the top of the list as our members try to adapt their often-precarious livelihoods to this new requirement imposing not only change, but more expense.
In Bengaluru, working with our members, our team has begun small-scale manufacturing, if I would be so bold to call it that, of bags that vendors could offer instead of plastic in making their sales. Suresh Kadashan, our director, had organized this operation, and over Zoom was detailing the process as other directors offered rapid-fire questions. Small bags cost 3 rupees to make and sell for 5. Larger bags cost 8 and sell for 10 rupees. He held these white bags and their handles up for display.
Argument broke out on composition of the material. Was it also a form of plastic or was in nylon and something? How about the handles, which were ready-made and sewn on the bags? The bags would deteriorate after 3 to 5 uses, Suresh reported. A cotton blend made more sense but cost more. Would hawkers be able to convince their customers to pay more? Delhi held up its bags, and Bengaluru challenged them as still having a plastic-component and not making muster. Remember this was based on a Zoom observation. Mumbai asked Bengaluru to post bags to the other offices so that all could follow the pattern and move forward.
Listening, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face or keep totally silent listening to the debate. I was in awe of how quickly ACORN had responded to this crisis for our members and the ingenuity of our organizers. I also couldn’t believe I was now part of a conversation about how to make shopping bags! ACORN, what an organization!
Meanwhile, reality mandates irony here. For all of our efforts, single-use-plastics only account for 2 or 3% of the use and misuse of plastics according to industry studies. Most of the problem “can be traced to the plastic packaging of fast-moving consumer goods” according to reports in the Indian Express. The paper also noted that a brand audit by the nonprofit, Break Free From Plastic in 2021, “found that 70% of the …pieces of plastic audited were marked with a clear consumer brand.”
ACORN will do our part about plastic at the bottom of the consumer system on the streets and marketplaces. It even looks like we will play a role in creating replacement bags for our members, while also sustaining the organization while doing so. Sadly, as organizers thrust into an unusual activity, we also realize that we are nibbling at the edges while the real targets are operating business as usual, even as cherish the fact that as organizers every day brings different challenges.