This year, Earth Day had the theme ‘End Plastic Pollution’. World Environment Day had the theme ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’. World Oceans Day had the theme ‘Preventing Plastic Pollution And Encouraging Solutions For Healthy Ocean’. As per statistics, 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ended up in ocean causing an estimated damage of $8 billion to the marine ecosystem.
Furthermore, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) issued some mind-boggling statistics which enlighten us, in brief, about the enormous danger the piles of plastic waste are generating globally.
However, the reality is far more dangerous than the aforesaid statistics.
We have entered into a time zone where we aren’t carrying plastics. The plastics are carrying us! Plastics have intruded our lives to the extent that we use them both in contraceptives (to control birth) and to test a woman’s fertility.
When the scientific community invented plastics, they probably had no idea that the issue of plastic waste would be the biggest fiasco for humanity, because of its non-biodegradable and persistent nature. Today, the market is flooded with items from baby toys to sex toys. One of the biggest users of plastics is biomedical corporations. Moreover, there’s no adequate waste-management measures in nearly three-fourth of the world’s hospitals and allied health centres. Despite the fact that plastics have been banned in so many countries and their provinces/states, the enforcement authorities have so far failed to impose the ban.
I won’t talk much about the statistics, the legality and the impact of such persisting non-biodegradable waste in our ecosystem. Instead, I would like to discuss our approach to reduce the use of plastics in our day-to-day life.
Let’s talk about marketing clusters from where such plastics are being traded to our homes in our daily lives. Let’s consider a single-family household consisting of six members. The purchase milk, bread, butter and food early morning leads people to bring a minimum of 2-3 plastics bags back home. Fruits and vegetables too require some 3-4 plastic bags. Apart from such daily trade-offs, the family also brings in plastics in the form of wrappers (for chips and other snacks).
Therefore, a family acquires an average of 10 plastic bags per day. This adds up to 70 plastic bags in a week and takes the monthly tally to an average of 300 plastic bags. We can add a margin of (+/-)20 bags to this tally.
90% of plastic waste generated in such families are from single-use/disposable plastics. This is the common family trend in many a lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class family in urban, semi-urban, small town, and rural market settings. Vendors selling vegetables, fruits, street food, small hotels and stores are the main traders of single-use plastic bags.
If families reduce and restrict this undue use of plastic by adapting themselves to carry cloth and herbal bags, their monthly use of plastic bags will drop sharply. Unfortunately, over a prolonged period of time, we have completely adapted ourselves to the use of plastic bags and related products. Moreover, we have poor infrastructure and knowledge about waste management and handling in India. A majority of major urban agglomerations have no adequate management measures for waste segregation, collection, transportation and storage. The explosive pace of the urban demographic sprawl and immigration have worsened the situation and made it graver. India’s metropolitan cities as well as medium and small urban clusters are vulnerable to flash floods during heavy localised rainfall – often because of choked water outlets in sewers due to heavy accumulation of plastic waste inside the channels.
Questions need be asked whether the concepts of civic social responsibility, corporate social responsibility, government social responsibility or citizen social responsibility need to be enforced or not. Personally, I believe that the core moral and ecological etiquette that subsequent generations used to inherit through education, culture and family values has now gone missing somewhere.
The use of plastics has brought dynamic behavioural changes in us. Plastics get integrated in our lives – so much so that we have adapted to it by discarding our ecological values, ethics and ethos. We throw away old clothes from our homes. For us, they they have no more ‘reuse value’ for crafting and designing bags, because we are so addicted to plastics that we hardly think about the risks plastics pose to our ecosystem, now and in the future.
In raising our quality of life going by the human development indices, it was once hoped that plastics would uplift poor and marginalised people, as it made life easier by helping them carry substantial loads. But as time went by, plastics became a disruptive, persistent, non-biodegradable risk in our lives.
It would seem that the scientific industry has become a corporate apparatus to introduce its inventions as products in the market, without assessing their dangerous and harmful social, economic and environmental impacts in the long run. The plastics were one such invention that has severely affected ecological structures and biodiversities ever since.
Yes, one can’t deny that plastics have offered an easy way out for us. Plastics introduced a way to insert an ‘upcycling’ stage in the normal cycle of reducing, reusing and recycling waste. However, today, we should focus on generating mass awareness and capacity building to eliminate these ‘convenient’ single-use/disposable plastics that account for nearly half of the plastic waste we generate every year.
Doing this is very simple, and an advanced eco-friendly technology isn’t needed to mitigate disposable plastics from our day-to-day household activities. We need to realise the disaster risks these wastes are creating. More importantly, in the present and the future, we should stick to our moral, cultural and ecological values. We have a great tradition of carrying bags manufactured from old clothes, bamboos and other natural materials. Our ecological etiquette will help us eradicate disposable plastics in all their forms and manifestations.
Municipal bodies in particular have an important role here. They not only need to administer, regulate and manage plastic waste segregation, collection, transportation and storage – they also need to involve youths, local people, non-governmental organisations, school and university students, women and other public and private institutions in generating awareness and capacity- building to eradicate the consumption of single-use plastics.
One of the biggest challenges for the local administration is to ensure the complete prohibition of plastic materials having a thickness of less than 50 microns, in accordance with the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2015. If we closely assess the share of disposable plastics in the overall plastic waste generation, it might exceed UNEP’s estimate of 50% in India. We should consider this challenge as an opportunity.
The solution lies in our daily behaviour and exercises, which will ultimately help us ensure a sustainable future for our children, in the long run. We should consider it mandatory for each one of us to make a habit of carrying cloth or herbal material bags. This will lead to a drastic decline in the generation of plastic waste. The ‘Reduce-Recycle-Reuse’ mantra is one of the paradoxes of our moral ecological understanding.
Small-scale efforts can bring about dynamic changes. It is the right time to adopt a style that promotes sustainable living. Spread environment education and awareness concerns in our school- going kids, emphasising the need to mitigate the use of plastics in our day-to-day lives. A sustainable and clinically-applied environmental education will lead to an understanding of how our life patterns have changed from simple to complex. A ‘sustainable living’ etiquette is therefore one of the steps if one wants to initiate themselves to a wise user of natural resources.
An environment at risk creates vulnerabilities in our health. A healthy ecosystem is the key to building a thriving society. Environment-awareness at formal and non-formal levels prevent the abuse of natural resources. On the other hand, lack of ecological awareness at the community and institutional levels is a major constraint for ecosystem-conservation. We should overcome this constraint by capacity-building. If we can’t recycle, refuse it.
India is one of the worst-managed countries as far as plastic wastes are concerned. Our sewer channels are choked up with tiers and tiers of plastic waste. Our water bodies are overloaded with floating plastics everywhere. The soil is losing potency drastically. There has been a drastic depletion in our ecological biodiversity. It is time to beat plastic pollution – and the solution lies in our living patterns. Let us allow mother earth to breathe better. Let us reduce the plastic load from our rivers. Let us stop such a large-scale plastic contamination in our marine ecosystem which severely threatens the biodiversity there.