Understanding the “Plastic” challenge

Recently, on the occasion of Independence Day, the Indian prime minister set the target of freeing the country from single use plastics (SUP). Let us try to understand the extent of threat posed to the environment by plastics today.

The UN defines SUPs as products that are commonly used for plastic packaging and include items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These includes grocery bags, food packaging products, bottles, straws, containers, cups and cutlery. As per UN estimates, 300 million tons of plastic waste was generated globally in 2015. Unfortunately, globally only about 9% of plastic waste was incinerated while only 12% was recycled, while 79% was dumped or littered in the environment.

Disposal of all plastic waste ever generated (as of 2015)

Single use plastic bags are made of a plastic type called polyethylene – or polythene – a tough, light, flexible, synthetic resin obtained by polymerizing ethylene. Foamed plastics is the material most used to make food containers. Single-use plastic bags and foamed plastic products are widely used because they are strong, cheap and hygienic ways to transport goods. However, the durability and resistance of these products also make them environmentally unsound. Some studies suggest that plastic bags and foamed plastic products can take up to 1000 years to decompose.

Plastic carry bags and foamed plastic products due to being low density and light weight, are usually easily blown in the air, eventually often ending up on or near oceans. If ingested by marine animals, these are a dangerous source of toxicity. A UN report estimates that by the year 2050, 99% of seabirds will have ingested public. Moreover, plastic waste and micro-plastics, if ingested by fish or other marine animals, can enter human food chain. Already, there is evidence of micro-plastic presence in table salt and tap & bottled water. Plastic bags can block waterways and exacerbate natural disasters like flooding. By clogging sewers and providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests, plastic bags can increase the transmission of vector-borne diseases like malaria.

Even more severe are the economic costs of plastic waste damage. Plastic waste is today costing the tourism, fishing and shipping industries $1.3 billion per year in the Asia-Pacific region. In Europe, cleaning of plastic waste from coastline and beaches costs €630 million Even more severe are the economic costs of plastic waste damage. Plastic waste is today costing the tourism, fishing and shipping industries $1.3 billion per year in the Asia-Pacific region. In Europe, cleaning of plastic waste from coastline and beaches costs €630 million per year (UNEP estimates).

In recent years, several countries have moved to act against plastic waste, imposing bans and levies. While it is early to assess the impact of the same, some of the reasons why bans and levies have been less than effective in eliminating plastic waste threat are: (i) lack of strict enforcement (ii) lack of affordable alternatives. In some cases, bans have led to black-marketing/smuggling of plastics further aggravating the problem.

The simple fact is that there is no straight-forward or easy solution to the threat of plastics. Recycling of plastic is definitely one of the way forward but it alone is not enough. Greater use of technology to introduce more environment friendly recycling measures is one of the key actions needed. Public awareness needs to be raised on the dangers of plastic waste. One of the key bottlenecks in this situation is lack of the dangers posed by plastic waste. Also, before imposing of bans/levies, suitable alternatives of plastic products needs to be provided and promoted. Bans, once imposed needs to be enforced diligently.

But the fact is there is only so much that the administration / state agencies can do. Finally, the change has to start with each and everyone of us. Unless you and me, all of us wake up to the dangers of plastic waste – this unbelievably severe threat to our planet’s environment will never go away.

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