Plastics Explained: What You Need To Learn And Unlearn About The Problem Polymer

BY Zarir De Vitre

Plastic. It exists all around us – in the form of bags, bottles, packets, toys…the list is endless. It chokes our marine life, contaminating our air, soil, and water and taking up ginormous amounts of space in the landfills. And while we tend to club its variations under one big umbrella, it is essential to know that it is unhealthy for the process of segregating, disposing and recycling it. The key to addressing the problem of Plastic is first to identify its different variations and the problems unique to each composition.

Facts: Here are a few facts that put the problem in perspective:

Types Of Plastic

Plastic is broadly categorized into seven different codes based on the polymers used in the manufacturing of plastic products. The codes help to identify plastics that are and aren’t safe to recycle. Since it is difficult to give up all plastic use at once, knowing more about the different types can help you, the consumer, to eliminate the more harmful ones, to begin with.

Polyethene Terephthalate, Also Known As PET, PETE Or Polyester

Items: Thin and transparent containers for water and soft drinks, food jars, microwaveable traysRecyclable: Yes. It is easy to recycle but can only be recycled once, so its reuse is minimal!Health impact: Under direct exposure to sunlight, it is known to leach harmful chemicals and endocrine disruptors that could lead to cancer, skin conditions, and menstrual and pregnancy issues.

High-density Polyethene, Also Known As HDPE

Image Source: iStockItems: Thicker, opaque containers for milk, juice, shampoo, detergentRecyclable: YES. Can be recycled into secondary products

Health impact: Considered safe to use and recycle with minimal chances of leaching.

Polyvinyl Chloride, Also Known As PVC, Vinyl or V

Image Source: iStockItems: Rigid or flexible Plastic used mainly in plumbing and cables but also in toys, packaging, oil jars, shower curtains, loose-leaf binder, etc.Recyclable: No. Considered the most toxic and harmful form of Plastic

Health impact: It contains carcinogens and endocrine disruptors that lead to hormonal and reproductive issues. Cannot be used in cooking or storing food item. Releases harmful dioxins when burned.

Low-density Polyethene, Also Known As LDPE

Image Source: iStockItems: Soft and flexible Plastic used mainly in cling films, courier bags (e-commerce packaging), bubble wrap, packaging for frozen foods, flexible container lids, garbage, and grocery bags, etc.Recyclable: Yes. It can be recycled but not accepted by all recycling facilities

Health impact: Relatively safer but can leach endocrine disruptors when exposed to sunlight.

Polypropylene, Also Known As PP

Image Source: iStockItems: Hard and flexible Plastic used in kitchenware and reusable microwaveable food containers, straws, bottle caps, ice cream containers, ketchup bottles, diapers, etc.Recyclable: Yes

Health impact: Relatively safe and stable and used for food containers.

Polystyrene, Also Known As PS, Styrofoam

Image Source: iStockItems: Rigid and opaque Plastic used in egg cartons, disposable cups and plates and disposable take away containersRecyclable: No. It contains neurotoxins

Health impact: It contains carcinogens and can release poisonous gases when heated.

Polycarbonate, Acrylic, Bioplastics

Image Source: iStockItems: All other plastics, including acrylic, polycarbonate, copolyester, and Bioplastics used in baby bottles, DVDs, sunglasses, prescription glasses, etc.Recyclable: No

Image Source: iStockHealth impact: Plastics in this category can contain carcinogens and endocrine disruptors

Why Recycling Is An Essential But Short-Sighted Solution

Not all Plastic is recyclable, and some are easier and safer to recycle than others (as seen in the table above. PET, HDPE, PVC, and LDPE are the most commonly recycled. However, PET and most other recyclable plastics can only be recycled once before they become too degraded to be useful again. Please note that the numbers on the recycling code refer to the Plastic’s composition and not the number of times it can be recycled! It is a common misconception that most plastics can be reused over and over again.

If Plastic gets recycled into a fabric, it can’t be further recycled. And once that shoe or t-shirt made from Plastic eventually breaks down, it cannot be thrown in a recycling bin. It WILL end up in a landfill.

Non-recycled Plastic is usually sent to the landfill, incinerated, or exported to other countries. Because plastic waste is not segregated by type at source, recycling is neither cheap nor prevents the production of virgin Plastic.

Image Source: Shutterstock

Multi-Layered Plastic– A Whole New Demon

Coffee cups and the packaging that encloses snacks like health bars, chocolates, and biscuit packets have multi-layered plastics (MLP). While most multi-layered plastics have two sheets of Plastic enclosing a layer of aluminium, MLP can be any material that has two layers of any material, one of which is Plastic. Since there are different layers with different properties and cannot be separated easily, recycling of MLP is too time-consuming and expensive, making it one of the largest categories of plastic waste.

The current Plastic Waste Management Rules 2018 (amended) is ambiguous on MLP, creating loopholes for companies to continue to manufacture and use MLP.

Beware Of The ‘Biodegradable’ Plastic

Terms like ‘bioplastic,’ ‘bio-based plastic,’ ‘compostable,’ and ‘biodegradable’ Plastic are all the rage and are used interchangeably even though they are not synonymous. This can be confusing, especially when you realize that not all these are biodegradable, and some are even fossil fuel-based. Since these terms are used inconsistently, it can be difficult for us to identify what is and isn’t biodegradable clearly.

Simply put, something is biodegradable when living things like bacteria and fungi can break down into natural end products like water and carbon dioxide. Biodegradable bags can be made from natural materials such as cornstarch and cellulose.

So ensure that you check the composition carefully before buying into the claims of the product’s packaging details.

It is essential to know that although biodegradable, the material needs a suitable environment to breakdown, something that landfills don’t offer. Ensure that you dispose of the biodegradable material responsibly – toss it in the compost or bury it in a mud patch.

Image Source: Shutterstock

Overwhelmed? Don’t Be. Here’s How You Can Eliminate Plastic Use

You can start by identifying and making a list of all the things in your daily life that involve buying or using Plastic. Once you know how much of it is in your life, you can start to look for alternatives. In general, avoid single-use or “use and throw” Plastic most commonly found in packaging, bottled water, and grocery bags. Below are tips and suggestions to help you in critical areas:

Home and Kitchen

  • Buy and store vegetables in reusable cloth bags
  • Store food in glass containers
  • Buy compostable or biodegradable garbage bags
  • Compost food waste to avoid plastic garbage bags
  • Avoid frozen convenience foods as they mainly have single-use Plastic
  • Buy fresh bread wrapped in paper or better still no bags
  • Get milk in reusable glass bottles
  • Make your own freshly squeezed juices or eat fresh fruit instead of buying in a plastic container or carton
  • Make your cleaning products using vinegar, water, and baking soda
  • Use natural cleaning cloths and scrubbers instead of plastic ones

Clothing and Fashion

  • Wear plastic-free fibres like cotton, hemp, silk, and wool.
  • Polyester, acrylic, lycra, spandex, nylon is all plastic fabrics that create microfiber pollution when washed.

School and Office

  • Use glass or steel water bottles
  • Pack glass or steel snack/lunch boxes and eco-friendly and reusable cutlery
  • Use refillable pens instead of disposable

Shopping

  • Carry your reusable cloth bags and say no to plastic bags
  • Say no to any single-use packaging
  • Seek out environmentally-friendly brands
  • Think before you buy online as most things are packaged excessively with single-use Plastic

Bathroom

  • Use a wooden or bamboo toothbrush and hairbrush
  • Use a bar of soap instead of shower gel or liquid that comes in a plastic bottle
  • Do not buy any cosmetics containing microplastics– avoid anything with ‘polyethene’ listed as an ingredient
  • Use a stainless steel safety razor instead of a disposable one
  • Switch to plastic-free menstrual products wherever possible
  • Switch to cloth diapers for children

This article was originally published on Ethico India.

About the Author: Zarir is an independent consultant with a decade of experience in the sustainability space. He also really enjoys tea, Lego, and playing football and basketball.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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