Challenging attitudes towards plastic consumption in India

Rajkumar Sahoo
Raj Sahoo
Rajkumar Sahoo

Rajkumar Sahoo is a PhD Student from Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India, where his research focuses on the sustainable consumption of single-use plastics in Indian cities. He was awarded an ACU Blue Charter Fellowship to further this work, which was hosted by Cardiff University, UK.

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Working around plastics and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is something very new for me. My journey began with the 2018 Summer School hosted by the ACU at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). As a participant, I got the opportunity to explore the wider canvas of debates around sustainability and its importance in the present times. In particular, the engagement with diverse participants from various countries and with local people through field visits around local communities helped in realising the urgency of focus towards the SDGs.

The Summer School was perfectly timed just before my PhD programme began, and as I was developing my research work I began to think around the SDGs as part of my primary research area. I was then lucky enough to be selected for an ACU Blue Charter Fellowship at the end of 2018, which helped me integrate this idea into my PhD project. The importance of my research lies between the growing issues of marine plastic pollution, unsustainable consumption and the aspirations to achieve long-term sustainable development goals.

As India is moving towards a middle-income economy, there will be a rise in consumption patterns. Hence, the less plastic we use, the less waste there will be and so the possibility of less plastic pollution. For long-term sustainable solutions, there is a need for a significant change in behaviours around consumption practices – the urgency for interventions at the behavioural level is both pressing and necessary.

Exploring interdisciplinary approaches to plastic pollution

The collaborative research I've undertaken as part of my Blue Charter Fellowship attempts to understand the usage behaviour of consumers around single-use plastics, such as plastic carrier bags, disposable water bottles and cutlery (e.g. spoons, forks, foam plates, sachets). Since a lot of plastic pollution happens due to unsustainable waste management practices, understanding the problem at the source is the driving factor of my research. In particular, I want to discover how consumers are dealing with plastic as a material at the time of usage, post-usage practices, and how various policies and regulatory measures around plastic bans are interacting with the wider consumer society.

As the Commonwealth Blue Charter aims to reduce marine plastic pollution and explore innovative ways for achieving SDG 14 (Life below water), my research is helping to contribute to the objectives of the charter by exploring the long term solutions around SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production) in connection with SDG 14. Since my case study site is Mumbai (coastal city), my research also attempts to explore the urban governance dynamics around plastic pollution in cities, indirectly contributing to SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities).

Previously, my journey around the SDGs (11, 12 and 14), Blue Charter, and plastic pollution was very limited, however I have been highly motivated by my fellowship experience and continuous interaction with various scientists along with my supervisor (Professor Wouter Poortinga) at Cardiff University to continue my work in these areas. My research seeks to explore the world of plastic consumption in India's cities, which to date is not a widely studied area. My hope is that it will open up some fundamental understanding of plastic usage and how effectively various policies have been able to handle the issue. Also, part of the study attempts to explore the governance around plastic pollution, which in turn will reveal possible areas for innovation.

The thematic areas of my research – namely plastic pollution, environmental behaviour, the circular economy, governance and regulation – closely interact with SDGs 11, 12 and 14, and are highly interdisciplinary areas of research. In India, the scientific expertise around these themes lacks a presence in universities and research institutions. Collaborating with social scientists while at Cardiff University for my fellowship was very helpful in shaping my research according to the Indian context. I will use these new professional relationships to continue my research work further back in India. Beyond my supervisor, I have also gained significant contributions from other Blue Charter supervisors/mentors, with whom I would like to continue to collaborate with in future.

Looking to the future

As a first timer to the UK this fellowship opportunity was very exciting for me. I was very curious to explore the local culture and lifestyle, as well as the academic and research environments. I feel like I've gained a lot of confidence during my fellowship by exploring new frontiers and connecting with passionate and curious researchers – from both the developed and developing world – who have shared their interests and ideas with me. I now have ambitions to visit those countries in the near future and continue to build my networks!

The experience of working with some of the stalwarts made me realise that there is always so much to learn. No matter how big or small the collaboration, if there is an interesting match, then there is scope for developing a professional relationship. These are just some of the things I have gained from my experience – I feel lucky to be one of the Blue Charter Fellows and even luckier to be a part of this global network of researchers.