“The future of plastics is in the trash can.”
-Lloyd Stouffer, Society of Plastics Industry Speech (1956)
The world is divided into two halves. On the one hand, there are advocates of plastic who swear by its comfy use, revolutionizing character and affordability. On the other hand, anti-plastic use voices condemn the overdependence of humanity on plastic and the disaster it is causing to the environmental balance. Plastic is ubiquitous in the modern era. Just talk about anything from a snazzy mobile phone, credit card in your wallet, or a Barbie doll for your kid, plastic dominates our lives.
Multiple uses of polymer compounds are embedded in everyday routine in millions of ways. Polymers are both man-made and natural occurring. A polymer is a chemical compound with molecules bonded together in long, repeating chains. Due to their structure, polymers have unique properties and these can be exploited for multiple uses.
The man-made or synthetic polymer is polythene, the most commonly used plastic in the world. PVC or Poly Vinyl Chloride was patented in the year 1913 at the start of
World War I to replace glass and metal for the packaging of pharmaceutical products. The plastic serves up as a cheap and flexible option in medical devices and has impacted the healthcare sector in a big way.
Contrast this with hard data on the damage which different types of solid plastic waste are causing to our fragile environment. In the year 2016, the world spewed up almost 242 million tones of plastic waste. According to the World Bank, this waste primarily originated from three regions—57 million tonnes from East Asia and the Pacific, 45 million tonnes from Europe and Central Asia, and 35 million tonnes from North America.
Surely, the plastic story has two sides to it. Increasingly, it is being felt by environmentalists that the human race adopted plastic for convenience but now we are drowning in plastic waste. Plastic pollution causes irreversible damage to not just human health but also threatens mammals, birds, and wildlife, and marine creatures. Plastic debris is found everywhere. From the Himalayas to Antarctica, the world is littered with plastic waste.
Oceans of the world are now home to massive trashes of plastic garbage. The Great Pacific Garbage patch is home to swirling trash and spinning debris from one coast to another. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, extends from the West Coast of North America to Japan. A lot of trash inside of this vortex is non-biodegradable and plastic is the main culprit. Gullible sea creatures ingest plastic and this leads to early death among whales, sea turtles, and many more unique inhabitants of oceans. Non-biodegradable waste cannot be broken down by living organisms.
A highly ignored characteristic of plastic is that it is almost immortal. It is almost impossible to get rid of it. The developed world mooted the idea of ‘recycling’ to downplay the stubborn nature of plastic. As per a news report, 1, 21,000 metric tonne of plastic waste found its way to the dumping grounds of India. This waste has been dumped by almost 25 countries.
India became the dumping ground for 55,000 metric tons of plastic waste from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Recycling companies have ‘slyly’ brought this waste to India and the government is not able to stem the onslaught. It is time for co-ordinate action on this front by the CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board).
To get its way around the dumping tactics of western nations, China came up with “National Sword Policy” to stave off the nexus of recycling processors in January 2018 and has successfully halted the environmental threat at home to a great degree.
Most nations now opt to incinerate the plastic waste or dump it in landfills. In case, none of this works out, the waste just litters the landscape as ‘throwaway culture’ gains momentum across the globe. According to a study by Yale School of Environmental and Forestry and Environmental Study, communities across the United States have stopped their recycling programs.
Philadelphia’s government is burning its recyclables including plastic at a waste-to-energy plant and this has led to the rise of concerns on air pollution. Reduce, Reuse and Recycle is a western trope and for long has been peddled as the working mantra for seeking newer markets for plastic trash in the form of recycling plant units located miles away from national coastlines of the developed world. It is time we junked the “Recycle” call and reclaim the policy idea space by refusing to be dumping ground for plastics and insisting on a sustainable future where the harmful effects of plastic use are completely obliterated.
Several states in India have put a complete ban on the use of polythene carry bags but it doesn’t seem to help much as people continue to use it citing lack of ‘alternatives’. For instance, the northern state of Punjab in the year 2016 notified a ban on the use of plastic carry bags under the Punjab Plastic Carry Bags (Manufacture, Usage, and Disposal) Control Act, 2005. In spite of legislation in place, plastic waste management in the state is at an ebb as due to the absence of awareness campaigns and proactive state response, plastic use proliferates.
At the international stage, India is yet to ratify a vital Amendment brought within the scope of the Basel Convention. The 1995 Ban Amendment, a global waste dumping prohibition, has become international law after Croatia ratified it on September 6, 2019.
Croatia became the 97th country to ratify the ban, which was adopted by the parties to the Basel Convention in 1995, to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes, according to Basel Action Network (BAN). BAN is a United States-based charity organization to play a leading role in creating the Basel Ban Amendment. This Amendment has been hailed as a landmark agreement for global environmental justice.
It may be recalled that the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was adopted by the United Nations in the year 1989 and it came into force in the year 1992.
The Convention is by far the most comprehensive global environmental agreement on hazardous wastes. Basel Convention aspires to regulate the transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and other wastes and expects from member nations to ensure that such wastes are managed and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. The Convention covers toxic, poisonous, explosive, corrosive, flammable, eco-toxic, and infectious wastes.
At the rate at which we are harbouring plastic, it is not long before we start living in a plastic junkyard. In a way, we already are living with tonnes of plastic waste in our backyard. India must urgently start looking seriously for healthier alternatives to plastic and the idea is to innovate and improvise.
Today, nations are gazing at a future without plastics. Mycotecture and stone wool is being considered as safer alternatives to plastic. India needs to walk the path of environmental protection and should also emphatically refuse to be dumping ground of hazardous plastic waste. It has been observed by some experts that fighting off plastic waste is more complex than fighting Covid-19 and governments need to synergize their efforts with NGOs, researchers, and industry experts.
A plastic-filled future is only going to put a plastic smile on our face and definitely, the world is better off with the radiant natural smile.