A few months ago there was a video doing rounds on the internet- a turtle trapped in a web of plastic ropes, clearly in distress. It was finally rescued by a kind-hearted gentleman and set free in the ocean. Today, millions of marine animals are endangered due to tonnes of plastic materials that get fed to water bodies every day. It is said that if the current trend continues unabated, our oceans will contain more plastics than fish by 2050.
In the pursuit of development and ease of living, human beings have invited many problems and done much harm to the environment – to the extent that the current epoch is termed as ‘Anthropocene’- relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. This certainly will have a disastrous consequence on the planet.
Plastic pollution is a troubling menace. In 2009, it was estimated that 10% of modern waste was plastic. Plastic is material consisting of any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds that are malleable and so can be moulded into solid objects. The first man-made plastic was created by Alexander Parkes who publicly demonstrated it at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. Since then, it has become one of the most used material due to the various advantages it provides which include its low cost, ease in manufacturing, non-corrosiveness, durability, imperviousness to water, strength (it can carry 2000 times its own weight). From consumer electronics (cellphones, televisions, refrigerators), automobiles (helmets, airbags) to food packaging and daily use items like toothbrush and shampoo, plastic makes its presence seem inevitable and irreplaceable today.
In India, which accounts for almost 18% of the world population in 2.4% of the global land area, the accumulation of plastic waste is huge. An estimate in 2015 revealed that 60 cities across the country generated over 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day. However, the irony is that the useful properties like durability and slow in degradation makes it harmful for nature as it cannot be quickly disintegrated and can take up to 1000 years to completely degrade.
Plastic has become ubiquitous on the earth’s surface due to poor recycling and exploitative use. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated, while the rest 78% has accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment. Thus, it is said that total plastic waste generated in one year could encircle the earth four times.
The accumulated plastic substances are a menace in many spheres. It blocks the percolation of rainwater, as a result, hampering the ground water recharge. The incineration of plastic waste emits harmful gases which cause problems in the lungs and can even turn cancerous. Stray animals on the streets like cows and dogs ingest plastics which causes the lakhs of animal deaths in the world, yearly. These wastes clog the drains that lead to breeding of mosquitoes and thus, harmful diseases like malaria emerge.
A major havoc is caused by single-use plastic which accounts for over 40% of plastic waste. Single-use plastic or use-and-throw in common parlance, refers to items which are used only once. These include cigarette buds, drink bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, drink lids and straws. Single-use plastic becomes waste in a time period of one second to one hour. These disintegrate into tiny particles (known as microplastics) and get into our food chain as animals ingest it and even contaminates the soil, thereby reducing its fertility.
It is to be realised that complete elimination of plastic may not be desirable or achieved in short term, however, death blow is needed on the use of single-use plastic products. In this regard, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, declared a countrywide campaign to reduce the use of such plastic products completely by 2022. India is set to ban six single-use plastic products from October 2 this year, that includes plastic bags, cups, plates, small bottles, straws and certain types of sachets.
Behavioural change among people is one of the important ways to achieve a plastic free country and world. Consumption focused culture or the mall culture need to be replaced by sustainable consumption, keeping in mind the future world. Small changes like carrying a water bottle to the office, making use of jute or cloth bags for shopping, in-situ segregation of waste at home, use of glass or steel containers for food storage among others can do a lot in reducing plastic waste. Meaningful contribution from all the stakeholders including the government, civil society and public at large is urgently required. This is an inflexion point in history, the right time to do something for the world or else it will be too late to repent.
By Ashish Bhandari