“We made plastic. We depend on it. Now we are drowning in it”.
This statement describes quite aptly how once considered a boon, plastics is now threatening to be earth’s most notorious waste. Its strewn everywhere – on streets and waste dumps; blocking sewer pipes, at landfills, floating on rivers and water bodies and messing our oceans and marine life. The problem is that very little of plastics is recycled; left on its own it never decomposes but finds its way in the food chain as micro-particles that cause great havoc with life, soil and ground water.
It was the plight of our oceans and marine life brought out by starkly by several research studies and documentaries that rung the alarm bells on plastic globally. Almost 90 per cent of debris floating on oceans and lying on beaches and coastlines is plastics. Plastics is commonly found in the bodies of seabirds and marine mammals. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our seas and oceans than fish.
Given the damage it has already done, it is difficult to believe that the first plastics were made just about a century ago. However, its production shot up after the Second World War. The world produced 335 million tonnes of plastic in 2016 and this figure is set to double by 2050. India too is producing more and more plastic. Sadly, most plastic is produced for single-use; 40 per cent of all plastic produced is just meant for packaging to be used once and thrown afterwards. World over, while the production was stepped up, there have no pathways designed to collect back or recycle plastic as a result of which legacy plastic has just kept on accumulating. Even today, globally, less than 20 per cent of plastic produced is recycled.
From cars, to toys to medical and sports equipment, plastics have become an indispensable part of our daily life. Milk comes in plastic sachets. Our waste liners are made of plastic. It is estimated that 40 plastic carry bags per week enter an average household in a city like Gurugram. These alone constitute biggest chunk of littered waste. Besides, piling up as waste, food products stored in poor quality plastic become toxic in nature.
Plastic are synthetic polymers that mainly exist as Poly ethylene Terephthalate -PET (bottled water and jars), High Density Poly Ethylene-HDPE (snack boxes, toys), Poly Vinyl Chloride-PVC (credit cards, pipes), Low Density Poly Ethylene (films and wraps) and Polypropylene (straws, lunch boxes). In India, there are no formal ways to segregate plastic waste. Most of the sorting of plastic waste is done by ragpickers who sell it to kabariwalas and petty traders who further sell it to small and large reprocessing units. There is a plan by the city administration in Gurugram to create plastic collection centres from citizens where plastic waste will be bought at Rs 10 per kg.
PET and HDPE are most commonly and easily recycled. PET for instance can be recycled into clothing, new containers, stuffed toys and building materials, etc. (A stretch of road in Sector 51 in Gurugram has also been constructed using plastic waste). Recycling is cost-intensive and also the quality of recycled product decreases with every processing cycle. Besides, all plastic is not recyclable. There is now a rising demand to produce only biodegradable plastic or that plastic that can be recycled easily.
But the best way to fight plastic pollution is by reducing consumption of plastic. Here, the role of citizens is paramount. Simple behavioural or lifestyle changes can go a long way in reducing usage. Carrying our own shopping bag is one. Stop buying bottled water and instead carrying your own metal water bottles when travelling. Carrying your own containers for buying meat etc helps further. You can take your own thermos to coffee shops. Glass jars can replace plastic containers. Newspapers or biodegradable liners can replace waste-liners. You can stop using straws easily. Many biodegradable products have come up as alternatives to plastic packaging and plastic products. We can avoid use plastic cutlery at events. A Gurugram resident has created a “crockery bank” and provides free steel utensils to help fight plastic pollution in her own little way.
At the national level, the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 have created frameworks for better management of plastic waste. It has increased minimum thickness of plastic bags, expanded the jurisdiction of the law to rural areas, allocated responsibility of producers and brand owners to take back plastic waste under Extended Producers’ Responsibility, as well as also revamped pricing under the plastic waste management fee for importers of plastic bags or street vendors for selling the same. It also encourages gainful use of plastic waste such as for road construction.
While these rules will guide sustainable management of plastic at the macro level, we must not forget that “reduction in use” is the easiest and the most natural ways of curbing plastic pollution. Unless each one of us makes informed and mindful choices in our daily living, this menace is here to stay. Say No to Plastics!