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The world calls to ‘beat plastic pollution’, but can we?

  • Photo : Vignesh Kamath / Research Matters
    Photo : Vignesh Kamath / Research Matters

If there is one thing common to the pristine landscape of Leh, the beautiful beach in Versova, Mumbai and the majestic Taj Mahal in Agra, its the heaps of plastic bottles and bags lying all around. Even the roads, drains and lakes aren’t spared! The reason? Our relentless use of things made of plastic every single day. An estimated one million plastic bottles and nine million plastic bags are used globally every single minute. Half of the plastic we use, from the straws to biscuit packs, is thrown out immediately after use. A report by the World Economic Forum estimates that if we continue at the current speed, by 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than the weight of all the fish!

“We're digging deeper and deeper into our already deep hole, and we need exponential solutions if we ever hope to climb out”, says Mr. Kareem Sheik, Head of Communication at Plastic Bank, an organisation aiming to stop ocean plastic at the source. In pursuit of such solutions, we ring in the World Environment Day 2018 on 5th June with the theme ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’. It is a call for us to consider the changes we can make in our everyday life to reduce plastic pollution.  But, can we?

Although bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, invented by Leo Baekeland was in 1907, the large-scale production of plastic as we know it started only in the 1950s. Since then, within seven decades, we have produced around 830 crore metric tonnes of plastic! Of this, 630 crore tonnes, over three fourth, is already thrown away as ‘waste’ and only 9% is recycled.  This rate of magnanimous production is not only incredible, but also incredibly irresponsible.  Perhaps there is some truth in the sarcastic answer of George Carlin to the age-old philosophical question, ‘why are we here?’ To produce plastic!

But why is plastic so ubiquitous? Because it is durable, cheap, waterproof, easy to produce, handy, and light. Hence, we produced and threw away plenty, thanks to our ‘use and throw’ approach. It is only now that we realise this convenience and callous attitude came at a huge cost!

The perils of plastic

The problem starts with the production of plastic materials that release high quantities of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. It is estimated that the production of simple plastic bottles we use every day generates over 100 times more toxic emissions than the production of same size glass bottle.  Globally, the plastic production has increased from 20 lakh tonnes in 1950 to 40 crore tonnes a year in 2015.

“Every day the world uses over 7 million barrels of oil to make new plastic, and this number is growing exponentially. Over the last ten years, we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century”, says Mr. Andrew Almack, CEO of Plastics for Change, an organisation using mobile technology to reduce plastic pollution and support urban poor. Controlling this exponential growth must be our first step towards beating plastic pollution.  David Katz, the founder and CEO of The Plastic Bank puts it beautifully, “if there is an overflowing sink, no point in mopping the floor until you turn off the tap”.

The next nightmare is the unscientific disposal of plastic. Over 80 lakh tonnes of plastic waste enters our oceans every year and one-third of the marine species get entangled in this litter. “That’s the equivalent of placing five garbage bags of trash on every foot of the 217,000 miles of coastline on our planet,” says Mr. Andrew. Over 90% of the seabirds have plastic in them. Turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and ingest them, only to die a painful death caused by the fatal blockages in their stomach. Even the mighty whales are not spared; the stomachs of more than a third of sperm whales found dead in Greek waters had plastic blockages including large car pieces!

To add to this is the problem of ‘microplastics’. The plastic waste in ocean eventually breaks down into tiny particles called the microplastics due to sunlight, salt and turbulence.  These particles pollute water, air, and land and impacts all life including humans by travelling up the food chain. 83% of the tap waters in many countries and 90% of the ‘safe’ bottled water are found to have microplastics. These microplastics are likely to possess cancer-causing and hormone-disrupting properties.

The animals on land too face the plastic plight. “Millions of cows on the road are full of plastic. You don't see it when you look at them, but they suffer and die”, says Clementien Koenegras, President of the Karuna Society for Animals and Nature. ‘The plastic cow’ project by the Karuna Society surgically removes up to 70 kgs of plastic from the stomach of many cows. Imagine a cow carrying the plastic weight equal to that of an average human, just because we forgot to segregate our food waste from plastic! Burning of plastic also releases over 50 types of cancer-causing elements like dioxins into the air we breathe. Even biodegradable plastics release significant amount of greenhouse gases and hence might not be a desirable solution.

Experts opine that phasing out plastics that are not recyclable and cutting down production might be the best option we have. Reducing and reusing are the next best things. Recycling, though appears to be a novel solution, puts significant pollution load on the environment.  “In India, there is very less regulation to govern plastic waste recycling and hence many recyclers use crude methods causing serious hazards to health and environment”, says Rasool Khan, Director of K.K Plastic Waste Management, a startup that uses plastic waste to construct roads. Most countries in the world, including many developed ones, lack the necessary infrastructure to recycle plastic.

Steps to clean up the plastic mess

The silver lining in today’s plastic conundrum is that there are numerous innovative solutions to clear up the mess and some are taking shape right here in India, which is estimated to recycle around 15-20% of the plastic waste, thanks to the rag pickers. For example, Plastics For Change has been working at the grass-root level with the rag pickers and waste collectors. The organisation has developed an ethical sourcing platform to create sustainable livelihoods for the urban poor.  A plastic recycling start-up from Hyderabad, Banyan Nation, recently won the Dell People's Choice Award for Circular Economy 2018 at the World Economic Forum in Davos.  Banyan helps large firms to use more recycled plastic. K K Plastics has converted over 15,000 tonnes of plastic into 3000 kilometre long roads since 2002. Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP), Dehradun has another breakthrough solution-- converting the plastic waste into fuel, a technology successful in countries like Japan.

Saahas Zero Waste in Bengaluru scientifically manages over 1400 tonnes of plastic waste a year.  “To the extent plastic is used and disposed, we need working systems in place that mandates segregation at source and good recycling infrastructure. Non-recyclable plastic should ideally be banned. At Saahas, we firmly believe in the principles of the circular economy. All the plastic waste collected is either recycled, upcycled or co-processed in accordance with law”, says Mr. Annie Philip, Legal Manager at Saahas.

With a background of unregulated production, unscientific disposal, and a promise of better solutions in the future, the call to beat plastic pollution seems apt and well-timed.  And it starts with each of us making simple changes to our lifestyles. “An average person uses 84 kg of plastic in a year, roughly 4,200 bottles' worth, and it's up to each of us as individuals to make a personal change”, says Mr. Kareem from Plastic Bank. Stop using straws, bring your own coffee mug to the office, bring a cloth bag to the supermarket, pressurise your local vendor to use non-plastic packaging, don’t litter when you are out, and force your local authorities to manage the plastic waste in a scientific manner.  You bring some change, I bring some; some change we must inspire, and hope some more will follow, for a better future!

The article has originally appeared in the Deccan Herald.