Why in news?
We celebrated ‘World Environment Day’ (June 5, a day set aside since 1974 to promote “worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment.”) with a critical theme: BEAT PLASTIC POLLUTION. Since India was the global host of this year’s event and also one of the victims of plastic pollution, we should view this danger seriously. Plastic pollution is a pressing environmental concern that requires our collective action. The theme urges governments, industries, communities and individuals to come together and explore sustainable alternatives. It also urges this target group to reduce the production and excessive use of single-use plastics which are polluting our environment and threatening human health.
How toxic is plastic and how big a threat is plastic to us?
- Plastic is made artificially from petroleum products.It has got many different kinds of complex organic compounds which are very toxic. As we use plastic, most of these compounds gradually release and they seep out. As a result, they enter into our bodies through a long process of the food chain.
- At the same time, when we discard plastic, they do not degrade, as nature does not know how to handle this newly created material and as a result it accumulates as a waste. Secondly, as the wear and tear goes on, very small molecules of plastic are formed which are called as micro-plastic. This micro-plastic is less than 5mm in diameter or even lesser.
- There is no corner of the earth left right from the Arctic to the Antarctic where plastic is not present in large quantities. In fact, in the Pacific, there is a large waste plastic island that has been formed which is interfering with the marine food chain. This is also reducing the yield of the fisheries and at the same time, affecting the well-being of the people and the livelihood. Plastics, after entering the food chain can be a major health disruptor. It affects the endocrine system as well.
Real health hazards of plastic on humans
- Plastics can cause birth defects, genetic defects. It can also cause carcinoma of the stomach, lung problems such as chronic bronchitis, skin problems, eye problems like visual defects, deafness as well.
- Further, it can cause even routine problems like coughing, watering from the eyes. Minimal exposure doesn’t cause much hazards but when we consume things in day to day life like the foods we eat that are packed in plastic containers, drinking water that is bottled in plastic bottles, it enters our food chain and gradually builds up in our bodies and causes problems.
Impact on the Ecosystem, especially forests and wildlife
- The ecosystem, forests and wildlife are all intricately and delicately linked with each other. So, when you protect a tiger, you are actually protecting the entire ecosystem. This is because, for the survival of one tiger, you would probably need around 500 or so Cheetals(Spotted Deer).
- For that many Cheetals, you need fodder, grassland, etc. Plastic can get into the intestine of grass-eaters, it can choke the water supply. This can break the very delicately balanced ecosystem of flora and fauna. Since it doesn’t degrade, it remains in the ecosystem forever. Thus, it is important to keep them off the pristine ecosystems.
- Cows and buffaloes are the mainstay of our economy, i.e. the agricultural economy.we see that in many parts of India, the deaths of cattle because of plastic, is increasing. There was a recent report in one of the states in India, that 8-10kgs of plastic was found in the stomach of a cow.
Impact of plastics on the waterways and the oceans
Plastics choke the rivers and the waterways, thus plastic is a huge menace. Each year, 13 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans. A study revealed that 20 rivers (mostly from Asia) carry two-thirds of plastic waste to the ocean; the Ganga’s contribution to this is one of the highest. Researchers exploring the Arctic have found very high levels of micro plastics trapped in the ice. Last year, a plastic spoon was found in the remains of a whale shark off Rameswaram. Experts explained that whale sharks are filter feeders and like to swallow everything floating in the sea. The economic impact of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems through fisheries and tourism losses and beach cleaning-up costs is estimated to be around $13 billion per year.
How to deal with the problem?
India’s Stand: India went big in their commitment to Beat Plastic Pollution today with an announcement to eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022. This unprecedented ambitious move against disposable plastic will drastically stem the flow of plastics from 1.3 billion people and business in the fasted growing economy in the world.
- India has 7,500 km of coastline – the 7th longest in Asia. As part of this commitment, the government will establish a national and regional marine litter action campaign as well as a program to measure the total marine plastic footprint in India’s
- Awareness is one of the biggest factors which can play an extremely important role. Plastic waste management should be introduced in school curriculums and school children need to be told about the adverse effects of plastic on their health.
- Recycling of plastic in India is very less.It is only about 9-10%. To ensure that this is addressed, we need to give incentives to industries and set up industries that focus on recycling of plastic. One thing we should not forget is that plastics which are less than 50microns, is manufactured by very small scale units. Thus wiping out the plastic industry is not the solution, we need to look for an alternative to plastics which are biodegradable and which can be recycled. Further, there has to be an incentive given for recycling.
- The other important fact to highlight here is the PWM (Plastic Waste Management) rules which the CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) introduced a few years ago. The rules have not been effective. We have to make rules which are implementable and which ensures that all the stakeholders are a part of it. As of now, the approach is from the top to the bottom.
- Thus, one is trying to enforce a certain set of standards for all the plastic manufacturers. Instead, if the approach is bottom-up, where all the stakeholders are taken as part of the consultation process and the rules are made to be more implementable then this would be a step forward.
- Further, the municipal bodies are required to register all plastic manufacturers.In Delhi, only a few plastic manufacturers of the thousands that are there have registered. The municipal corporations don’t have any wherewithal to implement these rules.
- Ban on “single-use plastics”. For example, in marriages and parties, we see plastic spoons, plastic plates, etc. being thrown away after just a single use. It is this kind of plastic use which is causing a lot of problems. Thus, people’s awareness has to be built on these areas and it should become a mass movement.
- In India, in all the wildlife parks and sanctuaries, the government is making it plastic free. When it comes to taking plastic water bottles into sensitive areas such as wildlife parks and sanctuaries, an inventory would need to be made so that items taken into the park are taken out as well. The idea behind this is to not leave any plastics within the park.
- Partnership between UN Environment and BCCI to ‘green cricket’ across the country – aims to reduce cricket’s environmental impact by greening operations and engaging fans and cricketers in green initiatives
- The government has also launched a ‘green skilling’ programme – Green Skill Development Programme (GSDP) under which youth, particularly school dropouts would be trained in a range of ‘green jobs’. GSDP aims to get 80, 000 people imparted green skills and in filling the skill gaps in the environment sector. Green Skill Development Programme will go a long way in reaping the demographic dividend of the country; GSDP to cover nearly 5 lakh people by 2021.
- Enough research has to be done where we are able to create a plastic wherein the monomers can be easily separated and they can be easily reassembled. If this is done, then recycling becomes very convenient and every time we get the best quality of plastic. Thus, a very serious research effort has to be made.
- The government can run a campaign saying, “No to Plastic”. If in the market, people are not buying plastic commodities, the message will also go to the industry. The industry will then look for alternatives.
- The industry will also invest in researching for alternatives. Thus, this is a good method to push out the consumption of plastic. Through government regulations alone, it would be very difficult to push plastic out. This is because in many countriesthe same has been experimented, but it hasn’t been successful. Having said this, the government can use plastic in road construction and thus start making Plastic Roads.
- The government can use plastic to generate energy also which has been done successfully in some of the states of the USA. Thus, there are ways in which plastic can be used.
- But if the people come forward and there is active citizen participation then implementation would happen.Apart from this, there are certain good examples as well like in some of the hill stations like Shimla in Himachal Pradesh as well as in Kashmir, plastics have been banned. It has happened because of two reasons
Are there any safe plastics which we can use?
- Although still a lot of work has to be done, there are good signs over the horizon. Today, new plastics have been formed which are made out of organic substances where on breaking, you will find that the molecules of which the plastic are made can be separated easily and they can be reassembled. These new developments are on the horizon and we need to pick them up.
- It is not yet cost effective. The governments need to provide money and support to push this research forward. When such plastics are produced in large quantities, then they would become cost-effective.
- Further, by growing algae, one can attempt carbon-sequestration. When algae is processed, we can get biodegradable plastics. These plastics can easily be a substitute for present day plastics. In the long run, this can be made cost effective.
The Way Ahead:
- We should ourselves not accept food in plastic containers. We should cut down the use of plastics in our day-to-day life.
- Law makers need to be exposed to the dangers of plastic.
- We need to plunge into a campaign to fight against plastics.
“Since the problem of plastic was created exclusively by human beings through our indifference, it can be solved by human beings by paying attention to it. Now what we need is a determination to get it done — before it gets us.” – Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Eco-friendly substitutes (cloth/paper/jute bags, leaves/areca leaf plates, paper straws) should be developed. For this, scientific and financial support (soft loans and subsidies) is required. Charges for plastic bag use and deposit-refund for plastic bottles may be effective options.The Swachh Bharat Mission should emerge as a platform for plastic waste management.
We cannot transform our world into a ‘plastic planet’. What is needed is collective public effort to stop plastic pollution and safeguard our ecosystem and biodiversity.