Opinion: What happens when a cow consumes plastic?

Written By: Subha Shanmugavel
Bhavnagar Published: Feb 28, 2018, 12:18 PM(IST)

Plastics affect the cows’ ability to produce milk, and they end up on the streets again, this time abandoned by the herder. Source: Youtube Photograph:( Others )

There are different theories about why cows line the streets of Bhavnagar. Some say the cows wander because of old age and a waning ability to produce milk. Another explanation is that the cows are allowed into the streets to find food on their own if the herder cannot afford to feed them. It is a wonder how they are able to find their way back to their respective owners. Still, one way or another, in the early morning, I find fewer cows in the street than mid-day. 

People are pretty conscientious about not throwing plastic in street in my neighborhood. Organic kitchen wastes like carrot tops and vegetable peels are scattered on the side of the street near a cow, which immediately trots over to feast. At least once, I have walked home with a bag of vegetables to find a long eyelash-ed visitor slyly trailing behind in hopes of a treat. It is always a pleasure to watch a little calf gobble up a spinach bunch or two. Though the scene is endearing, not everyone is watching what these cows are consuming. Elsewhere in the city, I have seen cows chew through plastics to reach the food wastes within the bag. 

Plastics affect the cows’ ability to produce milk, and they end up on the streets again, this time abandoned by the herder. It is a grim cycle with an economic complication wherein herders lacking funds to feed their animals allow them to be fed by the public. Without their owner’s knowledge, the livestock consumes non-biodegradable materials and begin producing less milk. By the time the problem is noticed, it is often too late to resolve it. If the herders can’t afford to take them to a veterinarian and the burden to keep feeding them becomes too much, the cow is released into the public. 

So what happens when a cow consumes plastic? Since the animal cannot digest it, it accumulates in the stomach, allowing less and less space for real food, leading to starvation. Milk production is affected by toxic chemicals entering the bloodstream from the little plastic that manages to be broken down. NGOs working to fight this environmental disaster have reported finding nearly 100 kgs of plastics in the digestive systems of some cows. 

The government of India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has been imposing stricter guidelines for plastic use for the past few years. There is no national law against the use of plastic bags, but regulations have made it so there are more incentives not to use them. The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 which regulates the manufacture, sale, distribution and use of plastic carry bags prohibited the use of bags made from conventional plastic with a thickness of less than 50 micron. Shopkeepers are not allowed to provide plastic carry bags and are also forbidden from selling plastic trash bags in their shops unless they have registered with their local waste management authority. Upon registration, they are also required to pay a monthly fee of at least 4000 rs and upwards of 8000 rs if they are a larger store. Bigger chain stores have started charging for reusable carry bags in hopes that customers will start bringing their own bags. Like most environmental legislation, the city of Bhavnagar may be experiencing difficulties in enforcing the rules. Nearly every small store I go to offers a thin plastic bag with my purchase and it seems unlikely that the majority of these stores are registered and paying the monthly fee.

On the upside, companies have actively started to look for eco-friendly packaging. Jute, a natural fiber which is endemic to South Asia, is making a comeback. It has been listed as one of the 4 future fibres for sustainable living by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. As cash crop for farmers because of its wide variety of uses, jute also enriches the soil for future crops, is biodegradable, and burns clean. A hectare of jute produces 11 tonnes of oxygen for every 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide it consumes. Traditionally, it has been used to package grains, but stores have also used it to create carry bags for their customers. Textile engineers and environmental engineers are currently in the process of increasing its applicability.

In addition to preventing future pollution, India is looking for solutions to manage existing plastic waste. Entrepreneurs and scientists are being encouraged to tackle this problem and being recognized for their innovative solutions. This year, the Padma Shree award, India’s highest civilian honor was awarded to Dr. Rajagopalan Vasudevan, a Tamil chemical engineer who patented a method for creating durable, cost-effective rural roads using waste plastics. 

Education about the importance of recycling is also gaining momentum. In fact, the city of Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for holding the world’s largest lesson on recycling. In 2015, 12,994 people attended the 55-minute session on how wastes need to be segregated to facilitate processing, composting, and recycling. The training had an impact as evidenced in Madukkarai, a town within the vicinity of Coimbatore. A 60% reduction in landfill waste was seen in 3 years. About 85% of organic waste is converted successfully into vermin compost, which is compost assisted in the breakdown by worms. 

Within my own organization, Shaishav, children often discuss environmental preservation. For instance, my first day here, the children were having a debate on what they believed was essential. Several children valued clean water and an unpolluted environment more than money because they recognized that these things were a relatively nonrenewable resource compared to money. Even more, they said that money’s utility held no importance but for obtaining things such as a clean environment. I believe this discussion set the standard for what I could expect to see from the children involved in Shaishav! 

India is known for its beautiful wildlife and environment. Let’s hope its equally famous ingenuity can solve some of the threats that its environment is facing.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Subha Shanmugavel

Subha Shanmugavel is AIF Clinton Fellow with Shaishav at Bhavnagar, Gujarat. She is interested in child welfare and poverty alleviation.
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