Let’s face reality. If you were to visit a beach in India, you would most likely encounter heaps of plastics on the seashore. From mineral water bottles and packets of chips to polythene bags and shampoo containers, you would find nearly every imaginable form and shape of plastic lying motionless on the coast, serving only to ruin the landscape.
But every once in a while, they are carried into the water bodies by the waves. This is where the long journey of plastic starts. My basic chemistry knowledge tells me that the closely bonded polymers would take centuries to degrade or essentially ‘die’. But the question then is – what happens to the plastic once it enters the ocean? It takes several paths and nearly all of them are detrimental to the ecosystem.
Plastics are often mistaken for food by animals and are thus subsequently consumed. This is how they enter animal bodies and gravely impact their health by blocking digestive tracts and damaging the endocrine system, resulting in their painful and untimely deaths.
In addition to this, when floating plastic that is degraded into tiny pieces by sunlight and microbeads that are a major constituent of shampoos, detergents, etc. enter the aquatic plants and animals, they get stored as toxic non-biodegradable chemicals that biomagnify over the trophic levels, ultimately reaching human beings and severely impacting the food chain. It is not surprising to note that the sea salt that we regularly consume tends to have microplastics in them. So think about this: “Are we having plastic for dinner?’’
In other cases, once plastic enters the ocean, it flows great distances because of the water movement and ocean currents, and at times gets trapped in gyres. One such example is the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ in the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has one of the highest known levels of plastic particulates suspended in the upper water column. The photodegradation of these plastics to a molecular level enable them to enter food chains when consumed by aquatic animals. On decomposition, they let out potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A and polychlorinated biphenyls.
Plastics are also seen on streets and pavements in cities, blowing carelessly with the winds and flowing into water pipes during rainy seasons, often clogging drainage systems. When plastics accumulate in landfills, they can release harmful substances into the groundwater and severely impact human health. The previously discussed aspects may have triggered you to think, “Why can’t we simply get rid of plastics when they are so harmful indeed?” or “Shouldn’t we completely ban the use of plastic?”
Well, before we delve deep into these questions, it is important to understand the history of plastic production. According to the Science History Institute, “The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. The growing popularity of billiards had put a strain on the supply of natural ivory, obtained through the slaughter of wild elephants. By treating cellulose, derived from cotton fibre, with camphor, Hyatt discovered a plastic that could be crafted into a variety of shapes and made to imitate natural substances like tortoiseshell, horn, linen, and ivory. “This discovery was revolutionary. For the first time, human manufacturing was not constrained by the limits of nature. Nature only supplied so much wood, metal, stone, bone, tusk, and horn. But now humans could create new materials. This development helped not only people but also the environment. Advertisements praised celluloid as the saviour of the elephant and the tortoise. Plastics could protect the natural world from the destructive forces of human need. The creation of new materials also helped free people from the social and economic constraints imposed by the scarcity of natural resources. Inexpensive celluloid made material wealth more widespread and obtainable. And the plastics revolution was only getting started.”
So, overall, plastics were made for a benevolent cause. However, presently, they are nothing less than a menace. And this menace is not caused by the entire set of plastics that is produced globally, but only from a fraction that escapes the loop of a circular economy. Most of the plastic that we consume come under the category of ‘single-use’ as they are just used once and discarded; and it is these ‘single-use plastics’ that are affecting habitats, ecosystems and marine life worldwide.
Plastic is remarkable for its characteristically durable nature and elastic properties, but the way in which we are using them and managing plastic trash is by far wrong. When we adopt recycling strategies, it is crucial that we learn from nature’s laws. On having a close look at the nutrient cycle, you would observe that the food produced by autotrophs is consumed by animals which ultimately die; their dead remains are decomposed by saprophytes and the nutrients are returned to the soil; these nutrients are then taken in by the plants which subsequently produce food to continue the nutrient cycle.
So from this example, we can infer that all the waste generated in one stage is actually being utilised as a resource in the next stage; and it is this lesson that we should incorporate in our daily-lifestyles, especially when it comes to the usage and management of high-utility objects (such as plastics).
For instance, Philips (the light manufacturing giant) is pioneering a circular economy approach, and is meanwhile saving costs. Frans Van Houten, CEO Philips, says: “We decided to embed circular-economy thinking in our strategic vision and mission, both as a competitive necessity and with the conviction that companies solving the problem of resource constraints will have an advantage. We believe that customers will increasingly consider natural resources in their buying decisions and will give preference to companies that show responsible behavior—something we are already seeing. Designing products and services for a circular economy can also bring savings to a company. The first impression people always have is that it adds costs, but that’s not true. We find that it drives breakthrough thinking and can generate superior margins. “In our lighting business, for example, rapidly changing technology and the economic crisis made business and municipal customers reluctant to make big investments, because they felt uncertain. This led us to consider lighting as a service. (….) For business customers, we now sell lighting as a service: customers only pay us for the light, and we take care of the technology risk and the investment. In many cases, we also take the equipment back when it’s the right moment to recycle the materials or upgrade them for reuse. Similarly, for municipal customers we now have streetlight installations in Singapore and, more recently, a contract in Buenos Aires to replace the majority of the 125,000 existing streetlights there with LED luminaires over the next three years. We install the equipment, maintain it, and make sure that it runs for a very long time.”
A shift from a linear economy (‘take, make and dispose’) to a resource efficient circular economy will ensure that plastic is not dumped carelessly, and is recycled into more usable products. However, such a transition would require the concerted and coordinated efforts of multiple stakeholders. To begin with, it would require a change in the mindset of the society in general; people will have to understand their civic responsibilities and reduce the generation of plastic wastes in the first place; this can only be done by creating awareness amongst the masses and by providing them incentives to shift to eco-friendly alternatives.
Then, it would require the stricter implementation and enforcement of policies by the government. For instance, a ban on microbeads in cosmetic products would greatly reduce the concentration of microplastics in water bodies. Such campaign initiatives must be carried forward by advocacy groups and non-governmental bodies.
Moreover, social and scientific research on eco-friendly alternatives to plastic by scientists can propose solutions to potentially reduce the extent of plastic production.
Furthermore, the idea of ‘redesigning’ products to make them more compatible and to get rid of redundant plastic, is another way by which we can reduce the usage of plastic. The packaging industry also needs to transform into a more plastic-free and environment-friendly industry; there has to be accountability on their part when it comes to plastic packaging.
Lastly, it is very important to have awareness and cleanliness drives to clean-up the ‘wasted’ plastics and to prevent them from entering water bodies. However, it is also important to keep in mind that these steps are just a quick-fix; the problem can only be tackled with the right policy interventions and an appropriate change in the mindset of people.