A plastic-free world? Starts with you

Plastic waste

The topic of plastic pollution has become as ubiquitous as the prevalence of the pollution itself the last few months. The theme for Earth Day (April 22) was “End Plastic Pollution” and that of World Environment Day is “Beat Plastic Pollution.” Plastic waste is everywhere and polluting land, water and air! It’s not just an environmental hazard it’s a health hazard. In the soil, plastic has been found to reduce the fertility, and in the ocean and water, it’s toxicity is the bane of all forms of life. So the true heroes are the ones finding a solution to the plastic problem.

There are governments and institutions implementing bans — some successful, others not so much. Individuals and influencers are highlighting the issues and promoting alternatives, some enterprising innovators are producing and marketing plastic alternatives and, most importantly, they are finding a way to upcycle and reuse plastic waste. And in India— where we generate about 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste daily — a complete overhaul of our systems is necessary. 

As Shaan Suhas Kumar, environmental activist and Miss India Earth 2017 puts it, “We were doing just fine when we had no plastic bags in our country before 1985. One-time use plastic bags, straws, cups, plates have more harmful effects on the planet than they have utility. We have everything ranging from animal deaths, land and ocean pollution to cancer that can be linked to these plastics. It’s high time to give up one-time plastics because there are easy and environment-friendly alternatives — all we need to do is try.”

Shaan, who is from Bhopal, has participated in coastal clean-ups in many cities, including Chennai. She has a very useful video on some plastic alternatives she uses in her daily life: bamboo toothbrush, metal straw, menstrual cup, reusable cloth pads, and metal water bottles. Shaan also carries her own cutlery and a cloth shopping bag in all handbags.

But, as a harassed mother recently noted, our stores and supermarkets make cutting harmful plastics out of our lives a tough task. The ease of access to plastic alternatives needs to be addressed. While many products are available online, they need to be made available in supermarkets and neighbourhood shops to scale-up the transition. From sea-weed, plant and vegetable-based grocery bags, garbage bags, water bottles and water pouches to pasta straws, pens from bamboo and recycled paper to edible cutlery and takeaway boxes and plates from leaves, bagasse, and crop residue, the alternatives need better last mile marketing and publicity.

Extrapolating the daily plastic waste figure, India generates about 9.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. And about 8 million tonnes of this waste ends up in the oceans across the planet.

The depiction of the ubiquitous plastic bag as an iceberg on the National Geographic cover was a powerful depiction of the problem. Large ghost nets and minute plastic pieces, bags and bottles are on the surface or right below as well as in the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean floor interfering with ecosystems and life everywhere. Big and small, plastic is entering the food chain and in humans, it is even disrupting and mimicking hormones. Yet, for the sake of convenience, their production and use continues unchecked.

Documentaries and series such as A Plastic Ocean (2017), Plastic China (2016), Blue Planet II (Oct-Dec 2017, two episodes now showing at PVR Cinemas) all consistently reveal a grim picture of plastics choking animals, birds, our lands, seas and waterways and plastic fires making people sick.

Personally, the most shocking scene from A Plastic Ocean was the dead seabird’s autopsy that revealed 240 pieces of plastic in its gut. The fact that 276 pieces was the record for that species — that too in a 90-day-old chick — was disturbing. The comparison that it’s a sixth of the bird’s body weight is a scary depiction of man’s effect on oceans.

Two PhD students from IIT-Madras have recently pitched their plastic pyrolysis system that converts multiple types of plastic waste into a diesel equivalent. Ramya Selvaraj from the Engineering Design department and Divya Priya from the Environmental and Water Resources Engineering centre of the Civil Engineering department, have developed a prototype plastic pyrolyser that can modify 500 kg to a tonne of waste at a time, can be mobile and powered by the sun. With petrol and diesel prices soaring and the Indian Rupee falling, such cheaper recycling alternatives to fossil fuels incentivises plastic recycling.

The municipal corporation has also expressed interest in the system. Ramya highlighted how large Waste to Energy (WtE) plants and incinerators in the state are not running to capacity, and despite instructions to segregate waste, there is little incentive to municipal waste workers to ensure 100% recycling of plastics.

A smaller plastic oiling system could incentivise recycling when an alternative fuel is the yield for the worker. An indigenous system that’s incubated at educational hubs and powered by the Make in India and Start Up India programmes would be cheaper than foreign technology.  

Plastic clean-up needs to be made a priority. Popular lifestyle trends such as plogging (jogging and picking up trash), plastic fishing as well as volunteering with coastal clean up, lake clean up, plastic audits and community clean up events are the silver lining to the dark cloud of plastic pollution.

Organisations that are reusing this trash and making usable stuff from them are powerful inspirations. Those who lay roads with waste plastic, make carbon nanotubes from plastic bags, build houses from plastic bottle bricks and plastic waste, not to mention companies making jeans from plastic water bottles and sneakers from ocean plastics, show that market forces can be harnessed to address plastic pollution.

Overall, a minimal waste lifestyle and being aware and addressing plastic consumption individually, as a family, then as a community are the building block for a plastic waste-free life.

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