Plastic. We have all seen it. Felt it. Used it. Learned how it’s produced. Some of us have fallen in love with it, and some of us have blamed old people for society’s rather prolonged dalliance with it. We have shopped using plastic bags, shared drinks using plastic straws, flicked on and off plastic switches. We have sat in plastic chairs, played with and smashed plastic toys, communicated using phones having plastic bodies, banged our plastic keyboards hard when we had had enough of slow peripherals. And a few of us have sold plastic eggs to the suckers of the world (what’s life without a little conning?). And yet we are nowhere near mentioning the gazillion ways in which humans have become all but plastic.
But why should we centre ourselves in this conversation? Let’s talk about how other animals have come to embrace plastic as well. Anchovies just love the smell of plastic. Of course, what actually whets their appetite is a bit of bacteria on it. Which it collects passively all the while it is swimming in the ocean. Hungry anchovies just gobble up the plastic along with what is food to them. But the little fish have not evolved to digest plastic. Very few creatures have. So any animal that consumes anchovies that have gluttoned on plastic will now be responsible for hoarding more or less the same amount of plastic that it has innocently consumed, in its body. Vultures have been eating plastic for a while, with the latter comfortably outliving the former. Plastic also travels. There is a documented case of an albatross ingesting 60-year-old airplane debris 9600 km away from the crash site. Plastic is everywhere in the oceans.
In fact, in 30 years, there could be more plastic in the oceans than fish! Cows are also eating plastic these days. Abandoned gau ex-matas travel to urban spaces where discarded vegetable bits might be wrapped in plastic in garbage dumps. Grass has become so scarce, and plastic so abundant, it’s no wonder that cows are replanning their diets. This kind of diet modification only has a few wee disadvantages – of restricting their otherwise ravenous appetites, of reducing milk production and drastically shortening their Methuselah-like life spans (just kidding, I was referring to plastic).
We, humans, and our friends (and enemies) in the natural world are beginning to swim in plastic. It’s becoming a menace. So much so that even terrorists are acknowledging it.
So when our Prime Minister declared from the ramparts of the still-not-renamed Lal Qila on the 15th of August that come October 2, there will be a blanket ban on single-use plastic, and then invoked gau mata a few days later in claiming to have witnessed “cows being operated and heaps of plastic being removed from their bodies” – the “entire nation” had to sit up and take notice. Lest the anti-national in you forgot, October 2, 2019, is the day when Swachh Bharat is supposed to have met its objectives of “eliminating open defecation” and “promot[ing] social inclusion by improving sanitation especially in marginalized communities”.
Well, if a recent case – two Dalit boys, 11 and 12, were killed for daring to defecate in the open – is anything to go by, Swachh Bharat has met with astounding success. It has saved on valuable tax money by not spending it on building toilets for Dalits, and now lynchers are doing their nationalist duty in “eliminating open defecation”.
Rest assured, Hindutva values ensure that there will always be enough Dalits available to deal with your s**t, literally. The Gates Foundation was so moved by the idea that it recently decided to reward the Trump-branded Father of Our Nation (you’re not Indian if you don’t agree with 45, and no, it doesn’t matter that he has been credibly accused of being actually anti-national and is facing impeachment) for doing the job of elimination so adeptly. Even though some testy critics argue that the scheme has mostly failed, Swachh Bharat has certainly helped improve the image of Our Father, if not sanitation. So what if a pesky Kashmiri decided to resign in protest over the coordinated, state-sanctioned so-called dehumanisation of Kashmiris by the Swachh government since August 5, 2019?
I almost forgot; this article is about plastic, not politics. Not any politics that isn’t plastic anyway. So, Indians, last known, consume 11 kg of plastic per capita per year. At the current rate of growth (not of jobs or median income, but of plastic consumption) it will hit around 20 kg by 2022, according to estimates that don’t account for underreporting. More than two-fifths of this is and will be single-use plastic (hey fellow ’90s kids, remember growing up in the times of “use and throw”?). It seemingly makes sense to want to eliminate single-use plastic if a curb is to be put on plastic use. Even though the average Indian generates less than half the global average of plastic waste, overall we generate more than 26,000 tonnes every day.
This is the paradox that confronts India – despite bearing the heaviest burden of poverty among all nations in the world, the sheer size of its population means that it causes so much pollution on the aggregate that it has to take a lead in curbing it, without either adequate resources or political will to get things done. What is the problem then – pollution or overpopulation? Father India, who has no child of his own, suggested in that spine-tingling Independence Day speech that the latter also be held to account. He blamed parents who have more than two children for keeping India uneducated and unhealthy; those who limited the number of children they had are to be seen as true patriots.
It doesn’t, of course, matter that he didn’t mention the government’s responsibility in promoting comprehensive sex education and spreading awareness about the benefits of having small families and about birth control measures. It’s well known that too many kids grow up on India’s streets, abandoned, vulnerable, others abused in orphanages. There was no impassioned appeal made to the “patriots” to adopt more children instead of having their “own”. It also doesn’t matter that India’s population growth rate has been falling since the 1970s. The overwhelming majority of parents having large families come from marginalised backgrounds. The fact that they perennially stay marginalised due to discrimination and due to the failures of the government in the social sector means they can never make a demographic transition to prosperity and hence smaller families. The PM’s comment was, therefore, decidedly anti-poor, if not also anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit. For a government that seems to be contemptuous of the “Khan Market Gang” (i.e. the privileged elite), it’s fascinating how it sometimes betrays classist, if not brazenly casteist or communal, sentiments of its own. The ‘tea-seller’ is now worth more than ₹2.5 crores.
As you can see, I have a penchant for asides. Regardless, putting a cap on poor people’s fecundity is unlikely to bring the plastic menace under control. A study by Schmidt et al indicates that of the ten river basins that contribute the most river-carried plastic waste to the world’s oceans, two are in South Asia – Indus and Ganga-Brahmaputra. This component of plastic waste in oceans forms around 30 – 35% of the total. This is more due to mismanagement of plastic waste and less due to any proportional rise in the use and careless disposal of plastic with rise in population. There is the problem of underreporting as mentioned earlier.
Lack of adequate measures in spreading awareness about segregation of waste at source means that the task of those who separate non-biodegradable from degradable waste and recyclable plastic from non-recyclables becomes a lot more onerous than it would have been otherwise. As for recycling of plastic waste, the Plastic Waste Management rules of 2018 have largely gone unheeded, as much of plastic in use in urban areas continues to not be tagged with numbers that would indicate the type of plastic and hence recyclability.
CPCB’s own rogues’ gallery excludes multilayered packaging in which snacks like chips, nuts, and candies are sold, which are almost never recycled and, therefore, shunned even by rag-pickers. Plastic has become so ubiquitous that there are few viable alternatives currently available to the average consumer. There is low awareness about the truth on “biodegradable” bin liners, that they require specific conditions for degradation typically not available in landfills and oceans. There is also talk of compostable alternatives to plastic. But in the absence of robust testing and certification to verify claims made by producers, spurious biodegradable and compostable plastics are entering the marketplace.
In January this year, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) said that 12 companies were marketing carry bags and products marked ‘compostable’ without any certification and asked the respective State Pollution Control Boards to take action on these units. All this is consistent with how solid waste is managed in India, exacerbated by a paucity of waste handling facilities in urban areas; much of what is there is informal. It is not uncommon to see young ragpickers labouring away near municipal waste dumps, trying to segregate waste and collect recyclables, without gloves, proper shoes or masks – foregoing good health and an education in fervent hopes of making a few bucks at the end of the day, enough for a meal. Obviously, these kids are responsible for making India unhealthy. And it’s not as if they have rights under Article 24 of the Constitution – probably because they were not birthed by ‘patriotic’ parents.
Degradation of plastic waste is not open-and-shut. Plastic waste fragments. When I was talking about humans being “all but plastic”, I was referring to the microplastics problem. It is literally ubiquitous. Microplastic is plastic that is smaller than 5 mm in size, and as such might not be “seen” as a problem. Microplastic can be created when plastic debris abandoned in the wild is broken up into smaller pieces by natural and artificial forces. It can end up anywhere – soil, air, water or even the Arctic. It is also added to the environment when humans use products laced with microbeads. Microbeads are meant to act as exfoliants in products like facewash gels and toothpastes (‘whiteners’). These might make us humans “glow”, but since we are obsessed with washing our sins away, these microbeads end up in surface water and groundwater systems, as well as the oceans, the ultimate dumping grounds. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has now become famous, and microplastics are the stars of the show. So these little beasts come back to us with a vengeance through our water supply, after having comfortably evaded filtration checks. Plastic teabags release billions of microplastic particles in your cuppa – ranging between a tenth of micrometer to five mm in size. Not to worry – for the time being, WHO asserts that microplastic larger than 150 micrometers in size have no demonstrable ill effect on human health. But this is assuming that there is a negligible amount of nanometer-level microplastic fragments present in drinking water, which might cause as-yet-unknown health issues, as these can be absorbed by the human body. But once again, why just centre ourselves? Let’s look at how microplastics affect others as well. It has been found that worms fail to thrive in soils contaminated with microplastic, which should be of concern to us all as worms are key to maintaining soil fertility, which is positively correlated with food security. As we have seen earlier, anchovies gorge on food infested with plastic, which might be seen as funny, even cute, but ingesting plastic causes actual harm to marine animals. In addition to losing their appetite a la cows on plastic diet, they also suffer from lacerations, infections, reduced ability to swim, and internal injuries. Floating plastics also contribute to the spread of invasive marine organisms and bacteria, which disrupt ecosystems. Discarded fishing nets made of plastic sometimes leads to “ghost-fishing”, causing losses to the fisheries industry. As marine biodiversity is crucial to life on Earth, any threat to it should be of major concern to us all.
In addition to the biodegradability and biomagnification issues that plastic waste causes, it is also implicated in the impending apocalypse that is climate change. A report by Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) suggests that while currently plastic production and incineration releases around 850 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere globally, it could reach 1.5 times that amount by 2030. Although still a small portion of the planet’s overall “carbon budget” at current carbon emission levels, it’s apt to argue that if we are looking to drastically reduce the scale of emissions to levels that would allow us to achieve the extremely ambitious targets set by 2015 Paris Agreement, then this does become significant. It must be remembered that the raw material for plastic is obtained through fractionation of crude petroleum, and any processing of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Incineration of non-recyclable plastic again releases greenhouse gases. There is a paradox here: plastic itself actually acts as a carbon sink, but in the production and disposal of plastic waste, it ends up releasing carbon. The best possible to way to do away with this paradox is to do away with what causes the paradox – plastic. But that ain’t easy.
The Independence Day pledge to ceremonially effect a nationwide ban on single use plastic on October 2 has drawn criticism from different quarters. Jairam Ramesh of INC, for example, has pointed out that the plastic industry “employs lakhs and the real problem is how we dispose & recycle waste”. While it is true that the government hasn’t had sleepless nights over India’s unemployment problem – I wouldn’t be surprised if it emerged that the government deemed those foregoing the luxury of employment as patriots – Ramesh’s assertion too is problematic. Studies show that those who work in the plastic industry often work in hazardous conditions and are exposed to a variety of serious health risks. One study demonstrates that women who work in the plastic industry face heightened risks of breast cancer. Another study shows that people who work in polystyrene production might, in addition to depressed pulmonary functioning, undergo chromosomal changes, which might produce genetic disorders in their offspring. That aside, we have seen how the production and disposal of non-recyclable plastic is an issue. It is important to phase out plastic while retraining workers currently working in the plastic industry. Those working in the plastic industry, for now, must be given adequate protection against hazards in the workplace environment.
Then there are those who say that bans have never been, and will not be effective. There is some evidence that is true. Bans, as opposed to regulations, invariably send the delegitimized industries underground. The more punitive the ban, the greater the difficulties and resources required in enforcing the diktat. Plastic has become so popular over the years that it would be illogical to expect people to boycott it entirely in one go. In Kenya, which has one of the strictest bans on plastic use, the authorities have allowed plastic to be used for wrapping food items. Also, bans only work if there are readily available and objectively superior alternatives. If plastic bags are to be replaced with paper, cloth or processed jute bags, that would require a huge tradeoff with our climate plans. For example, a cotton bag must be reused 20,000 times to produce less of an environmental impact than a single-use plastic bag. Also, using the catchall “biodegradable” might mislead consumers, as some biodegradable materials are only broken down by specific kinds of bacteria not necessarily available adequately in the wild. Reconciling facts like these with our consumerist and environmentally apathetic culture might be difficult. Can we be weaned off our consumerism? We will probably have to count on old-school Swadeshi nationalism.
It is obvious that any strategy to deal with the plastic menace has to be balanced and multi-pronged. For one thing, it is extremely important to foster a culture of waste segregation at source. This needs to happen at the level of local self-government (i.e. municipal or panchayat). People need to be educated about the importance of waste segregation and then incentivized appropriately (preferably at community level to promote teamwork) to practise the same. Reusable and recyclable plastic must be promoted over single-use plastic. Since children can be enthusiastic enforcers, schools should be encouraged to participate in waste management workshops, and schoolchildren who bring about changes in their communities should be recognized and rewarded. It obviously helps if those on the supply side become sensitized of the scale of the problem, whether of their own volition, or otherwise. Three of the largest mineral water/carbonated beverage companies in India, anticipating a ban on PET bottles they package their products in, are setting up a joint plastic waste management entity. Adidas is seeking to pioneer engineering plastic marine waste into sportswear and shoes – they call it Ocean Plastic. That sounds really cool.
We need more recycling and need to keep hunting for alternatives. Plastics are mainly of two types – thermoplastic and thermoset. Thermoplastic is pliable and can be melted and remoulded to manufacture new products because of two-dimensional polymerization. Single-use plastic and PVC belong to this category. Thermoset plastic undergoes three-dimensional polymerization, and therefore ‘sets’ into shape and cannot be melted or remoulded. Switches made of Bakelite are an example of thermoset plastic. Recycling can currently only be done with thermoplastic, but not thermoset plastic. While the latter have longer life spans, they are a perennial headache when it comes to disposing them off. Some research by a Chinese scientist has shown it might be possible to recycle thermoset plastics, but we will have to wait till it is adopted at an industrial level. India’s “Plastic Man” Padma Shri R. Vasudevan has developed a technology to fortify tar with shredded thermoplastic waste to build roads. He predicts that the plastic waste generated in India can be absorbed by its roads, which sounds noble if ambitious. As for alternatives, it has already been established that currently available ones have limited utility and generate new waste-handling as well as climate concerns. Silicone-based alternatives to plastic should be looked at, and currently available silicone-plastic hybrids must be improved upon. These could present us with a viable alternative to plastic, as the raw material for silicone is easily available (sand), and also silicone doesn’t degrade to microplastic level, thus making it more manageable. Additionally, it would help provide alternative employment opportunities to those currently working in the plastic industry.
There will be resistance from the plastic industry to keep itself from being pushed into obsolescence. Those roadblocks will have to be dealt with. While the owners will always have alternatives, the workers will have to be convinced that there are greener pastures elsewhere and should be retrained adequately. Green jobs need to created and citizens should be nudged towards giving up or drastically reducing plastic use. The government will have to play a crucial role in all this. It cannot simply pass the buck to ‘patriots’, regardless of how many awards it wins, if a ban on plastic is to be all but a formality.