Sunday Herald: Plastic Problem - Not Disposable, This

We need to handle plastics more responsibly. It's the need of the hour.

Starting this World Environment Day, how can you contribute towards saving the planet from plastic? The best way to reduce plastic waste is to cut consumption.
Highlights: 
Say NO to plastic crockery and cutlery, including straws; takeaway boxes and cups; bottled water; polybags less than 20 microns; pre-packaged food provisions.

Did you know that ordinary toothbrushes are the second largest source of plastic waste after plastic bags? — This is a question that popped up on my social-messaging site. It was part of a promotional campaign by a company offering bamboo toothbrushes. To be honest, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind, that the toothbrush could be in the list of culprits polluting the environment. This, when I consider myself eco-conscious and make a deliberate effort to reduce carbon footprints. The little advertisement not only made its mark in spreading awareness but also brought home the fact how intertwined plastic is with our lives. So much so, we often don’t realise it exists at every step. On an average, we make use of a plastic product every half hour. I used it six times in under a minute when a courier arrived: I held a pen (plastic) to sign, turned the regulator (plastic) to increase the fan speed, picked up a pair of scissors (plastic handle), snipped the cord (plastic) of the packaging, put aside the bubble sheet (plastic) and removed the packet (plastic) that held a book.

Though plastic is being made out to be the devil that is all out to destroy the planet, let’s pause a bit. Plastic has been immensely useful in all fields of life, and it will be impossible to wipe it out overnight. Considering that is the case, is plastic in itself the major cause for concern, or is it its disposal that has led to alarm bells ringing around the world?

Workhorse gets unbridled

Plastic has been an incredible workhorse of contemporary times. It is uniquely lightweight, durable and largely impact-resistant. Its inherent characteristic has helped innovations reach the remotest parts of the globe. Ironically, these very features prevent it from being biodegradable, resulting in it becoming a huge environmental hazard.

Plastic is derived from natural products like petroleum, natural gas, minerals or plants. These undergo a series of chemical processes to form chains of molecules called polymers; thus the prefix ‘poly’ in a lot of plastic products like polythene, polyplast etc. These polymers are combined with other elements to form different kinds of plastic. So, though made from naturally-occurring material, its passage through the laboratory makes it unfit for the environment.

Where does plastic go after it has been dumped into the bin? In ideal situations, it gets recycled. One, there are units that combust it to create electricity or heat. Two, some of it gets converted back into the liquid fuel that is used in specially-designed plants and vehicles. Three, shreds of waste plastic are melted and formed into pellets that can be made into other products; that is how you get to see items which state ‘made from recycled plastic’. Any plastic that gets to the recycling plants has been sorted, shredded and rid of impurities.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Then what is the hue and cry about? The fact is, only a minuscule percentage goes through the process of recycling. The US, for instance, generated 33.6 million tonnes of plastic, but only 9.5% got recycled. The bulk remains in garbage piles that collect along roadsides, off railways tracks, in fields, by the coast, and on the hills. Tonnes of it go into landfill and sneak into the oceans, leaching toxins into the land and deep down under. This is the plastic, the real devil, that is suffocating our environment.

An infallible strategy needs to be worked out for plastic disposal. A point in case is the issuing of the state-wide ban on polybags less than 20 microns by our state governments. Eighteen states have announced it, and more are likely to follow suit. When a ban is announced, it comes into play the next day, but its life is short-lived. Within a week or so, vendors are back to using it, cocking a snook at official seriousness. A blanket ban on plastic bags, thus, does not appear to be a workable solution. What is required is a long-term approach keeping all parameters in mind, like small businesses and daily-wage earners making a living from it, and the fact that a replacement needs to be cost-effective.

Marine woes

When on a beach holiday, how would you react if you’re told the waters you are gambolling in are nothing but a garbage broth? You wouldn’t want to think about that, right? Horrific images of birds and fishes wrapped up in plastic bags, or their dissected bodies full of ingested plastic trash, have been in the news and these prove just how polluted our waters have become. Over a million marine animals get entangled, strangled, suffocated or injured by plastic every year. The cause is the tonnes of plastic debris floating in the oceans, most of it being microplastic that is definitely hostile not only to the health and safety of marine life, but to you, too.

The oceans are in severe danger. An example is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), the world’s largest collection of floating trash, lying between Hawaii and California, which collects in that spot due to a gyre. According to a 2018 research published in Scientific Reports, “At least 79,000 tonne of ocean plastic is floating inside an area of 1.6 million km. Over three-quarters was carried by debris larger than 5 cm and at least 46% was comprised of fishing nets. Microplastics accounted for 8% of the total mass but made up 94% of the estimated 1.8 trillion pieces floating in patch.” The report further states, “Results suggest that ocean plastic pollution within the GPGP is increasing exponentially and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters.” It also mentions “global annual plastic consumption having reached over 320 million tonne with more plastic produced in the last decade than ever before. A significant amount of the produced material serves an ephemeral purpose and is rapidly converted into waste. A small portion may be recycled or incinerated, while the majority will either be discarded into landfill or littered into natural environments, including the world’s oceans. While the introduction of synthetic fibres in fishing and aquaculture gear represented an important technological advance specifically for its persistence in the marine environment, accidental and deliberate gear losses became a major source of ocean plastic pollution. Lost or discarded fishing nets known as ghost nets are of particular concern as they yield direct negative impacts on the economy and marine habitats worldwide.” These are terrifying statistics.

How does one get around to solving the marine problem? Enforcing agencies apart, there are examples of selfless acts that are serving the cause. Young Dutch entrepreneur, 23-year-old Boyan Slat has made it his life’s mission to clear the GPGP. Closer home, Mumbai lawyer Afroz Shah is lauded for his voluntary drive to successfully clean up Versova, in what has been hailed as the world’s largest beach-cleaning task. The sea throws up plastic with every high tide and he’s on record saying how his band of volunteers removed 5.3 million kg of plastic and other litter that had been mounting for years. It took them 85 weeks, starting October 2015, to achieve this gargantuan task. The beach sparkles now, but Shah and his team cannot sit back and relax over their hard work as the waters continue vomiting dirt on to the shores.

Asia vs West

As much as 70% marine litter originates on land. It gets blown in from the coast or flows into rivers from urban settlements during a storm or rain. Overflowing sewers and storm-water drains add to the woes. With the Western world having become a consumerist society a century ago, it had begun generating mammoth amounts of waste. Other parts of the globe, especially Asia, which lived a relatively slow life, caught up with consumerism and the change in lifestyle has seen an exponential increase in garbage being produced by almost every country. According to the latest (2017) report by Ocean Conservancy, “China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam were dumping more plastic into oceans than the rest of the world combined.”

As Asian economies rise, consumers have more disposable incomes. This spells good news for manufacturers. In a bid to grab more market share, fast-moving consumer goods companies (FMCGs) are churning out a lot more plastic-packaged products. To reach out to every stratum of society, from cities to rural hamlets, they are increasingly packaging their products in tiny pouches. Be it shampoos, soaps or noodles, they’re all available in extra-small sizes. The ease of online shopping has also contributed to excessive buying and over-packaging in plastic.

The result is massive amounts of garbage and no proper disposal system. In such a scenario, some unacknowledged heroes are rag-pickers who rummage through mounds of garbage, and kabadiwalas, who buy your scrap. Manufacturing companies have also begun exhibiting a sense of social responsibility and are making an effort to turn green. These small measures will make an impact only when a concerted effort is made globally.

Starting this World Environment Day, how can you contribute towards saving the planet from plastic? The best way to reduce plastic waste is to cut consumption. As a start, wean yourself off disposable plastics. Reverse the clock and get back to using glass bottles and glassware. Save the empty sauce and oil bottles and jam jars; these will come handy in storing your provisions. Become a proud BYOB, that is ‘Bring Your Own Bag’, and join the growing tribe of those who feel a sense of responsibility towards the environment. At restaurants, settle for filtered water and not bottled water. Make it a point to opt for zero-plastic packaging when ordering online. And most importantly, if you see plastic litter in public spaces, don’t shy away from picking it up. Keep a pair of gloves and a bag handy to use to clear up spaces. A small act of yours will go a long way. Such initiatives have gone on to become community movements. It’s the need of the hour. Let’s begin now.

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Sunday Herald: Plastic Problem - Not Disposable, This

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