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‘More Plastic Than Fish In Oceans’: Reassessing Our Plastic Usage

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‘Plastic’ is essentially the condensed form of ‘thermoplastics,’ which describes polymers that can be moulded and shaped upon application of heat. These long chains attribute plastics (Plastic Innovation) with critical physical properties such as toughness, strength, and durability. Plastics are a long chain of molecules typically derived from crude oil and natural gas.

Polyolefins (polyethylene and polypropylene) are the most commonly produced synthetic polymers around the world. Polyolefins are combined with several other materials while making multi-plastic, and they are impossible to recycle. They can survive for centuries in our environment and degrade painfully slowly. According to an estimate, about 5 trillion plastic bags are used every year in the world.

Plastic Innovation
Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Plastics are ubiquitous as one can find them in any place on our earth. It is no surprise that plastic waste has already reached the deepest part of our ocean, the Mariana trench as well as the highest peak of the world, Mt. Everest. Commonly sighted waste includes plastic bottles, cups, packaging waste, plastic bags of various sizes, straws, lids, containers, etc. and the list goes on.

One cannot deny the fact the plastics became an inherent part of our life given the benefits it provides us. It is unique as it’s lightweight, durable, waterproof, affordable, and inert in nature, and thus, it occupies a fixed place in our lives. Even those who sincerely avoid the use of plastics are highly probable to encounter it in some other form.

It is estimated that global plastic production will shoot up in the next decade, given a very tiny portion of the produced plastic is recycled. Plastic waste ending up in landfills forms huge towers of waste and the rest is shipped to our water bodies.

Around 13 million tons of plastic waste enter our oceans every year harming the rich biodiversity and marine ecosystems and around 40% of the plastic that is produced globally is used only once and discarded.

If this trend continues, the day is very nearby, where there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. Plastic and the waste being generated through them is polluting every corner of our planet, killing animals, and has also gained access to the food chains of many living beings.

Producers today are not accountable for the plastic they use for the purpose of manufacturing and shipping. Shifting the onus to consumers has failed miserably due to the ineffective waste management systems and high complexity in handling. We need to change our relationship with plastics fundamentally. With ever-increasing population growth, the need to reduce our dependency on plastics will become ever more important.

The future looks bleak with the way we are handling plastic waste today, and it is important for each one of us to find a more viable and sustainable alternative. Nations should improve their recycling methods, technology, and infrastructure.

Representational image.

If we continue to stay indifferent to our consumption patterns and handling of waste management, plastic waste in the environment will reach colossal numbers by 2050. The plastic industry will also reach 20% of the total global fossil fuel consumption if the current production trends continue.

In this blog, I try to present an overview of the crisis that our world is currently facing today and scrutinize the potential alternatives, and further throw some light on how governments, enterprises, and consumers can make a difference in tackling this issue.

Plastic — A Miracle In Our Lives?

The plastic Industry has seen tepid growth in the beginning years with its presence mainly in the manufacturing of daily household items and some domestic products.

Production of plastics for the last 50 years has exceeded all the other materials, and most of it is intended for discarding after using once. Packaging materials based out of plastics form the most significant chunk, 50% of the total plastic waste generated in the world.

The plastic industry has contributed significantly to India’s economic development and growth in various key sectors, including Automotive, Construction, Electronics, Healthcare, and FMCG. The plastic industry growth rate in India is the highest in the world, which is projected to grow at 16% per annum.

EU, US, and Japan are the largest plastic packing producers in the world, whereas Asia is the largest packaging consumer. Currently, only 9% of the 9 billion tonnes of plastic that is produced every year is recycled, and at this rate, it is estimated that 12 billion tons of plastic litter will end up in landfills, environment, and the plastic industry will account for around 20% of the oil consumption.

According to a study conducted by WWF, unless we do significant changes in the way we use plastics and manage the waste, pollution will double by 2030.

Plastic Innovation
Global plastic waste by disposal

Plastic Resin Production

The key raw material using which plastics are produced is ethylene, which is a gas extracted from non-renewable fossil fuels like crude oil or natural gas. Various chemicals, solvents, and additives are further added to ethylene before subjecting to polymerization that creates the long chain of molecules in the form of resin.

The plastics that we use in our daily lives are a by-product of the re-extrusion of this resin and further processing.

Today, most of the single used plastic waste is disposed of in landfills as we do not have a strong ecosystem to collect and recycle this waste. Owing to their chemical properties, plastics are highly stable, and thus, they remain almost eternal.

In order to augment the resistance of plastic films to acidic contents, manufacturers tend to add antioxidants, thereby slowing the decomposition rate further.

Today, we speak of an industry that employs lakhs of people in both direct as well as indirect jobs in our country. According to an estimate by CRISIL, the domestic polymer demand is projected to grow at a very strong pace for the next five years, with polyethylene, polypropylene, and PVC as the key demand drivers.

Plastic & The Human Bondage

Plastic plays a crucial role in food packaging, ensuring arresting food losses, wastage, and contamination. Right from the time food is harvested till it is consumed, plastic is extensively used increasing its shelf life, ensuring safety and protection from pests. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) underlines the importance of packaging and storage to ensure food is distributed safely.

It has been proven that plastic packaging tends to show a net positive impact on our environment when compared to greenhouse gases, water, energy use, and food distributed without packaging. Discarding packaging will have severe implications for our food security, safety, and lead to severe food wastage. As per the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, a life cycle analysis study of several different alternatives shows that plastics have a lower environmental impact in comparison to others highlighting the trade-off conundrum we face.

The Evil Side Of Plastics

If we all think for a moment about this crisis, it is astounding to realize that plastic waste is an inherent part of our culture as we regard it as an expendable item than something as an invaluable resource that is capitalized to meet our needs.

The moment plastic waste becomes a part of the environment, we are plagued by the multitude of issues it creates. Plastic waste obstructs the watercourses flowing by it and inhibits the vital groundwater seepage. As most plastic waste is seen on sewers, ponds, lakes, and canals in our cities, sewers, water flow is blocked, and thus they end up as breeding areas for mosquitoes and can lead to the spreading of dangerous diseases like malaria. We are ingesting our bodies with microplastics through our food chain and various carcinogenic chemicals used in making plastics can cause irreversible damage to our organs.

Mismanaged plastic waste that is discarded or dumped in open landfills, roadside litter that can eventually enter our surroundings is significantly higher in low to middle-income countries owing to immature waste management practices. Asia and African countries contribute to 90% of this portion, whereas Europe and North America are very advanced with a minimum contribution of 5%.

Plastics such as PVC can leach harmful chemicals like additives and various compounds into the soil, water, and landfills turning everything into toxic. On the other hand, incineration, which is widely used in the EU region and the United States, though manages waste effectively generates greenhouse gases and contributes to air pollution.

Plastics also contribute to the so-called chemical burden on our environment. Plastics cause higher damage when exposed to sunlight / burning them as the molecules break and release toxic gases. According to data cited by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, plastics alone contribute to 14% of the toxic gases which were released into the air.

Toxic emissions like dioxins, carbon monoxide mainly result from incomplete combustion of polyethylene, polystyrene, polypropylene, and PVC. Hence, environmental control of emissions and strict monitoring are essential to ensure that incinerators are efficient and release waste gases as per prescribed standards.

Production of the plastic resins itself causes severe irreversible damage to our environment though it is not visible to our eyes. The polymerization and refining process employs sophisticated techniques to increase efficiency but releases dangerous toxic gases like benzene, ethylbenzene, nickel oxides, and other high-volume pollutants into our atmosphere. Chemical additives which are used in the production also have serious negative environmental and health effects on humans due to the release of toxic substances like lead, cadmium, mercury, and other carcinogens.

Scenario In India

India generates a whopping 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day. Indians are notoriously famous for mismanaging plastic waste in the form of open burning or throwing litter everywhere without any sense. This is mainly due to inefficient waste management systems, incompetent municipal bodies, and lack of awareness, and thus, it is extremely challenging to collect and recycle the waste. Hence, public and municipal bodies resort to open-pit burning of plastic waste. Plastic waste has been debated and discussed by several bodies, governments over the past decade, but the progress is minimal.

India’s tallest rubbish mountain in Ghaziabad, Delhi was about to grow taller than the iconic Taj Mahal by 2020. With 2000 tonnes of garbage dumped each day, it was projected to reach 73 meters.

Plastic Innovation
India’s tallest garbage mountain in Ghaziabad alongside the Taj Mahal. Photo by Daily Mail

India’s per capita plastic consumption currently stands at 10 kg per person compared with about 90 to 100 kgs in the United States, and 50 kgs in Europe. Despite such low figures, India generates huge plastic waste daily and is posed to be of the biggest challenges of this decade.

Urban India is better in handling plastic waste compared to rural India owing to effective collection and segregation at source, adequate facilities, and better processing of the collected waste. However, rural India suffers from many challenges and still follows orthodox practices.

Today, we use multilayer plastics for wrapping almost everything from potato chips to shampoos. It is ironic that attention is not paid to the management and disposal of plastic waste though we all see how much of it is floating in our oceans and clogging the rivers. Although there is a huge backlash against plastic waste pollution by many Indian NGOs, very little has changed in the minds of the people of our country and the governments.

India’s shift towards rapid urbanization, smart city development, increased sales of packaging products through various channels, changing consumer preferences, and buying patterns are driving plastic growth today.

Plastic Waste Recycling In India

Recycling plastic is a difficult task in India as it faces tough challenges in collecting the waste, segregating, transporting, processing, and then re-manufacturing. With high costs along this process chain and low value for the recycled product, it is not so attractive and hence needs government subsidies. To add to the woes, Indians lack awareness and discipline when it comes to the disposal of plastic waste or recycling. Both the government and industry must come forward and work together to change the mindset of people and promote effective plastic waste management.

Plastic recycling clusters — India

Plastic recycling in India is primarily done by several unorganized players spread across the country, supporting the lives of thousands of families. The informal sector plays a key role in safeguarding plastic out of landfills. This sector is dependent on rag pickers who earn very meager wages for collecting the whole waste day and selling it to buyers at their processing facilities.

PET bottles in India have a reasonable recycling rate due to the strong informal network of scrap dealers in every part of India. It is economical for putting efforts into collecting thick polypropylene than in collecting thin polypropylene. Also, recyclable plastics turn useless when they are soiled as the cost of recycling is further increases due to initial washing. Recovering plastics is a civic one than a technological problem.

Saving recyclable waste material from going to disposal centers or landfills is crucial and should be our focus. Effective recovering at the source of waste will save cost, efforts and can be profitably used for recycling. Brand owners should come forward and share the responsibility of managing plastic waste and recycling it. We can also adopt best practices of some of the states of our country as well as developed nations for better reuse and recycling of packaging materials.

It is already known that inappropriate plastic disposal disturbs the soil microbial activity, prevents groundwater recharging, and in some instances releases carcinomic chemicals in the atmosphere. With stray cattle, pigs, and dogs feeding on thrown-away plastics and food, their lives are also endangered.

Some of the recent developments which took place in addressing the problem of plastic pollution are shown in this timeline.

Timeline of events in India — plastic ban

Many of the initiatives taken by the Indian government could not yield good results owing to poor implementation. Though these are in line with our country’s target to phase out single-use plastics by 2022, the bans are not implemented in their entirety, and there were several loopholes and structural issues. It is essential for a country like India to drive movement against plastics rather than banning them. People are always disinclined to switch to alternatives in place of cheap and convenient plastics as its deeply embedded in our economy.

Any measure taken should be customized, considering the socio-economic status of the people living there. The recent plastic ban imposed in the state of Maharashtra has led to the overnight closure of several small manufacturing firms leading to the loss of jobs. Few firms have adapted themselves by switching to manufacturing those packaging materials which were immune from the ban.

Many of the plastic manufacturing firms in India are small-scale-based industries, and hence, the industry needs to be pushed systematically as they cannot afford to absorb any shocks from plastic bans. Things that were not planned for had already taken its toll, but it is still possible to control the damage caused by plastic. Banning plastic is not a feasible solution to this problem, given the extent to which society is dependent on it for ensuring food storage and safety.

India has already taken the right steps in targeting single-use plastic items like cups, straws, coverts as they are the most noticeable and omnipresent. However, the availability of alternatives to plastics at an affordable price is the biggest hurdle we face today.

E-Commerce & Problem With Packaging Products

Packaging materials are the largest market for plastics around the globe, and the trash generated after usage accounts for at least half of the plastic waste generated worldwide.

The e-commerce industry, which is growing at a swift pace in India is now a day one of the significant contributors to packaging waste. E-commerce packaging employs plastic, bubble wraps, air packets, tape to safeguard the product.

With changing buying patterns and preferences, consumers want products to be delivered to their doorstep. Products are handled several times from the moment it dispatched from the warehouse, and thus, the packaging is optimized and customized for products.

Companies are adapting themselves to the digital world and switching to online selling along with their traditional outlets. Last year, China singles day online sales have generated a whopping 1.6 lakh tonnes of packing waste. Lack of laws governing the e-commerce packing or usage of plastics has led to widespread exploitation of plastic waste in the name of safe and efficient packing.

Single Use plastic products employed for doorstep delivery are polluting the environment. Representational image.

Regulators framing laws for e-commerce packaging is the need of the hour given the sheer size of the market and its potential to take over brick and mortar stores. Online shopping is convenient and makes our life more comfortable and has tremendous business potential. However, this greediness for convenience should not blind us to the damage we are causing to our environment.

We have already seen the product life cycle of packaging material and how it is contributing to waste. E-commerce companies should voluntarily come forward and take initiatives to promote green packaging and other alternatives.

This is entirely about the mindset of the people involved in the supply chain, and it is time we proactively respond to this driving the change. A holistic approach is needed to tackle the packaging riddle. Today’s companies are adopting omnichannel distribution, which integrates both online as well as in-stores to give the right consumer experience.

E-commerce giant Amazon has taken few steps already to spread awareness and necessary actions to optimize the packaging design. Their frustration-free packaging criteria, which are a part of their packaging certification program, have eliminated the usage of millions of corrugated boxes.

This program is designed to educate the industry on the benefits of sustainable packaging to reduce the impact on our environment and minimize costs throughout the supply chain.

Similarly, Dell has responded to complaints from customers about excessive packaging and non-recyclable shipping boxes long back. They have reduced the size of boxes and started using bamboo cushioning in place of foam and plastics, packaging material made from wheat straw, etc.

Today, the retail marketplace is continuously evolving, and companies need to consider the life cycle approach during the design of the product as well as packaging. By working closely together, they can meet the requirements of both online, offline retailers, customer choices, and follow regulatory guidelines.

Some of the actions to reduce e-commerce waste

R1: Reduce — Manufacturers, e-tailers, and consumers must find ways to decrease the amount of packaging and filler material used

R2: Reuse — Consumers can reuse packaging for outgoing shipments including returns and repurpose packaging in creative ways

R3: Recycling — Manufacturers should continue to focus on creating packaging using recyclable materials

R4: Responsible Disposal — All stakeholders must follow this.

Marine Debris

Marine debris majorly consists of plastic waste and microplastics accumulated over a period collected from various sources. Ocean currents act upon them, leading to garbage patches that can span thousands of square miles resembling floating islands.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest of all marine debris formed in the north Pacific Ocean contains majorly discarded ropes, fishing nets, and other plastic mass, which accounts for nearly 52% of the total waste lying there.

Today, trillions of plastic waste pieces are floating in the oceans already, and if plastic pollution is not abated, virtually every seabird on Earth will end up eating plastic in some form. Commonly found beach litter includes bottles, caps, food wrappers, used polythene bags, polystyrene containers, disposed of plastic packaging.

Many habitats, ecosystems, and biodiversity are getting lost due to marine litter present today. It costs all nations $8 billion per year in the form of costs for fisheries, aquaculture, marine tourism, clean-ups.

Even economic activity is impacted by marine litter in the form of shipping, fishing, aquaculture, tourism, and recreation. Commonly sighted marine litter is cigarette butts, plastic bags, fishing gear, food, and beverage containers.

Microplastics

The name ‘Microplastics’ has been given to the plastic particles which measure less than 5 mm in their dimensions on any side. Industries manufacture primary microplastics in the form of microbeads, fibers, capsules, and resin pellets which are used to make cosmetics, toothpaste, abrasives, etc upon subjected to heating.

However, humanity has indirectly led to the cause of another variety called secondary microplastics that are formed by the fragmentation of large plastic waste. These larger plastic pieces when exposed to UV rays from the sun and the prevailing environmental conditions of rivers and oceans they disintegrate into secondary microplastics.

Owing to their smaller size, it is difficult to monitor or track and thus easily gets ingested by various life forms, including humans, and can have a detrimental effect on the functioning of our bodies.

Microplastics have crossed all the borders and are found in water bottles, fish, and salt. Plastic waste present in any form on water or land can be mechanically abraded by wave and wind action creating microplastics that can be ingested by several marine life forms and animals eventually ending in our food chain.

Many sea birds have already eaten plastic and are feeding plastic scraps to their offspring unknowingly. Recently, a dead sperm whale was found washed up in Spain in 2018, and upon opening its stomach, 32 Kgs of plastic bags and waste were found.

Microplastics were found in the deepest trenches of our oceans and high up the tallest peaks of our planet.

Many studies conducted on this show that table salt, tap water, and even bottled water have shown traces of microplastics. At this point, we have limited information on its effects on our health, but before this can cause serious damage to our organs, cells we need to attack the root cause.

Our Water Bodies Are Shipping Waste Into Oceans

It is astonishing to see the trash that we generate ends up in an uninhabited, remote place like Henderson island lying in the Pacific Ocean, 3000 miles from human settlements. In a research study conducted there, it is observed that more than 600 pieces of plastic are found in every square meter of the island.

Indiscriminate dumping of plastic waste in rivers and canals has contributed to today’s sad state of affairs. Direct dumping of plastic waste is in any form contributes mostly to the litter we see in rivers clogging it all the time.

It is not surprising to find that rains cause the mishandled waste we throw on land to enter local canals, sewers which feed into larger tributaries, rivers and in turn empty into seas, oceans.

Polluted rivers, canals bring in a significant portion of the plastic waste and feed our oceans. The top 20 polluting rivers in the world account for more than 67% of the marine pollution when they eventually enter the oceans. Also, these top 20 rivers are geographically located in the Asia region.

China’s Yangtze River is the world’s most polluted river which empties a vast amount of plastic waste into the Pacific Ocean (through the East China Sea) brought in by its surrounding tributaries spread across a vast land.

Plastic waste release into oceans through rivers. Photo by Nature Communications

Ocean currents and tides transport this disregarded plastic waste around the world circulating in huge gyres. Plastic waste often gets caught in these gyres whirling and cycling in vast swaths and spreading across the ocean. These currents carrying plastic have taken its toll on remote islands in the oceans harming ecosystems and birds nesting there. Henderson Island has become the primary settling site for the circulating trash in the oceans.

A Look Into The Global Recycling Industry

Challenges of recycling. Photo by National Geographic

Nations like the US face complex challenges in recycling plastic, mainly the post-consumed plastics like food containers, packaging. As it is a complete labor-intensive process, it does not make economic sense for recyclers. The harsh reality is that plastics collected in recycling bins do not end up recycled and are sent abroad for processing.

Major exporters and importers of plastic

For decades, many western countries have offloaded their plastic waste. China has been taking in plastic waste from several developed nations to help its manufacturing sector. China has roughly imported around 100 million tons of plastic scrap during the period 1992–2015. However, China’s plastic waste ban has wholly opened the eyes of our nations to find that we are surrounded by a huge trash and recycling problem and the ugly world of the global recycling industry has come into the limelight.

China in 2018 has ratified the ‘National Sword’ Policy, which prohibits 24 categories of recyclable waste, including scrap plastic and paper into its country. This has created ripples across many nations and has given thrust to the debate regarding domestic recycling and reducing plastic consumption.

Export of plastic from various nations to Asian countries

It has also forced the US, Canada, and EU nations to find an urgent alternative. Some of these countries have realized the long-term effects and started implementing bans while others have moved to other Asian nations accepting waste. EU has approved a bill to ban single-use plastics which also transforms the responsibility to producers for clean-up of the mess. Similarly, many US states are considering a comprehensive single-use plastic ban, levying taxes and fees, banning polystyrene, etc.

Southeast Asian countries have virtually become the world’s largest importer of non-recyclable plastic waste in the backdrop of China’s chance of policies.

In 2018, Malaysia alone imported around 2.5 lakh tonnes of plastic scrap from the United States according to the data sourced from Resource Recycling. Malaysia which has become the hub of all non-recyclable plastic waste dumping has recently shut the illegal facilities sending back the waste to the countries of origin giving a strong message to all nations that it is not a dumping ground. The Philippines too acted in similar lines sending back dozens of garbage containers shipped illegally.

Considering the current situation where waste being dumped in several Asian nations illegally, environmental organization Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) has given specific recommendations for building a roadmap for sustainable transboundary movement of plastic waste, measures to phase out single-use plastics, global implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

It is imperative that every country should develop and scale up their domestic recycling facilities and stop exporting plastic waste to other nations. Exporting our waste to other countries is not a sensible move in economic as well as sustainability terms. We are losing more than 95% of the value of plastic waste in exports which can be harnessed to recreate reusable plastics. We must keep aside our personal choices, political prejudices, business interests, and come forward to find a practical solution to this.

Solutions To Handle The Crisis

The current waste management systems have not proven to be effective in controlling the damage being caused to our environment, and thus, we need a build a holistic strategy to tackle this problem. The problem of plastic pollution cannot be limited by just improving our recycling methods and processes but by also focusing on creating environmentally friendly and sustainable materials, studying newer models of plastic consumption that will transform how we manufacture, circulate and use them.

Manufacturers, governments, and people need to act decisively in manufacturing, managing, and using plastics. In order to address this century’s biggest burden on our environment, governments need to act first and come up with stricter regulations; companies need to innovate and focus on bio-based plastics; individuals need to reduce the usage of plastics and support recycling.

Alternatives

It is essential to understand that there can never be a single standard solution for reducing single-use plastics. Involvement of all the stakeholders is necessary along with incentives from the government to build strong public support. It can be learned from the success stories from many countries in the EU and China that outright bans are inefficient, and people have responded better to charging taxes, money for using plastic bags.

Small adjustments to our family’s daily routine can allow us to push our limits and make a real difference in the fight against this plastic. Something as simple as avoiding plastic wrapping or covers for items bought from stores and bringing our reusable bags can inspire our fellow citizens and drive this fight against plastic.

Trade-offs are always present with the substitutes that can be used in place of plastics, and it is challenging to find balance in the available choices. For example, a reusable cotton bag requires higher energy, and when compared to a plastic bag. Plastics are the best solution to prevent food from rotting and preserving it for more extended periods, and alternatives may not give desired results.

A few of the alternatives to plastics are compostable coffee cups, personal care products made from wood, bamboo straws, paper cards, metal drinking bottles, metal food containers, sustainable clothing using natural fabrics, edible spoons, palm leaf plates. Some of the naturally occurring organic materials that biodegrade rapidly are jute, silk, wood, kenaf, cotton, flax, linen, wool, bamboo.

Our actions will have the highest impact, and we need to educate and convince our friends, family to refuse disposable plastics. Together we can fight plastic waste and find a better way to use it sustainably.

Bioplastics

As single-use plastic and styrofoam take at least 500 years to decompose in natural environments, Bioplastics are a promising alternative. They are made from corn starch, sugarcane, and cassava roots. With increasing attention to green plastic products, a shift towards healthy lifestyles, and concern towards our environment, many consumers are moving to bioplastics.

However, the market for these products has not yet matured owing to higher costs, lack of availability and infrastructure to manufacture. Persistent efforts towards increasing awareness, R&D, and developing environmentally friendly products by governments as well industry will transform this industry and take over plastics.

Biopolymers made from biomass such as Polylactic acid (PLA), Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) polyesters produced by numerous microorganisms, and Thermoplastic Starch (TPS) is also a promising alternative to disposable plastics, packaging materials, and several other single-use plastics. These alternatives will not serve the purpose unless we have a good number of composting facilities. Many companies are turning greener and become carbon neutral today. This will increase industrial composting facilities, efficient management of waste practices and can be a perfect use case for implementing at a large scale with acceptance from all stakeholders.

The widespread availability of Starch has sparked interest in its strong potential to replace conventional plastics. Thermoplastic starch is tried in packaging to protect goods in transit to study its feasibility to replace polystyrene. After exploring such alternatives, it is essential that we have to analyze the supply side constraints as in the name of sustainable alternative plastics, we end up damaging our environment using more water, fertilizers, biocides, and energy.

We might be bombarded with issues when crops are deliberately grown to produce polymers based on biomass as this can impact the soil availability for agriculture. Similarly, subsidizing crop production as a raw material for biofuels or polymers to biomass base has little sense in environmental terms if excessive water, fertilizers, pesticides are used. The farming community will benefit from subsidy measures, but the overall costs of environmental degradation are much higher.

The Conundrum Of Bioplastics

The catch with the term ‘Biodegradable’ is that they do not degrade automatically in the natural environment, especially not in our oceans. This often misleads consumers as the polymers degrade when they are composted but in an industrial setting where temperatures are maintained at about 60°C for several weeks.

Bioplastics or biodegradable plastics are currently produced at a very low rate in India. Even though they break down faster than conventional plastics, it does not necessitate quick degradation. These bioplastics also need separate waste management and compost facilities, which are not present in many cities in our country owing to the additional installation costs. So far, the name ‘bioplastics’ has been used for successful product marketing with the context that consumers are not aware entirely of the facts.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has cleared the misconceptions and impacts of biodegradable plastics that they do not bring any change in the plastics entering our oceans. This clear distinction should be informed to consumers so that sorting and disposal are correctly done without mixing with conventional plastics.

In order to avoid confusion, bio-based plastic products can be designed to allow consumers to distinguish more easily.

Some Successful Use-Cases

Loop™

  • We need to go back to basics and reinvent the way we use products. A promising example in this regard is the way how revolutionary a zero-waste e-commerce system called Loop™ works. The Loop Alliance was launched at the recently concluded World Economic Forum meeting in Davos where it intends to drive zero-waste packaging to answer the problems of plastic pollution.
Loop concept. Photo by World Economic Forum
  • A pilot is being tried out in New York, where the olden day milkman is reinvented so that consumers can eat, drink, and wash without generating any plastic waste. Consumers order all the groceries (everything from juice to cereals, shampoo to detergent) which are delivered in glass and metal containers by the delivery person from the loop. Once the stock is over, empty cans are collected from the bag and taken back for washing and refilling at the delivery centers.
  • It can be seen here in this concept that the accountability for packaging’s afterlife is shifted to a company from the consumers as a promising alternative to recycling. Loop Alliance is a partnership with the world’s biggest consumer goods companies including P&G, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Carrefour, Tesco, Mondelēz, PepsiCo, Danone, Mars, Nestlé.

Kudumbashree

  • One successful case study by the state of Kerala is the concept of Kudumbashree. This initiative is already playing a pivotal role in managing plastic waste in Kerala. In cooperation with the local bodies, Kudumbashree workers are entrusted with several tasks including a collection of plastic waste, biodegradable waste from households, and operating shredding units where the output is routed for recycling. It is noteworthy that the waste collected from households against a fee aiming for generating zero waste from households. Recycled plastic is given to the local bodies for laying roads after mixing with bitumen and manufacturing other green products.

Other Notable Mentions

  • Plastic waste needs to be fought as a movement by the people of this country. One very inspiring real-life example is that of the environmentalist Afroz Shah, who has led a movement that has transformed the Versova beach in Mumbai. Known to be the world’s most substantial citizen-led beach clean-up, volunteers spearheaded by Mr. Shah have collected around 40+ tonnes of plastic waste since 2016.
  • Volvo cars have recently announced that from 2025, at least 25% of the plastics used in their new models will be used from recycled materials. They have also committed to remove single-use plastics from their offices, restaurants, and events and replace them with sustainable alternatives.
  • Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, one of the key Government initiatives has been able to change the mindset of people, and it has set the right platform for safe disposal of waste and worship cleanliness.
  • To tackle the issue of growing plastic waste every year in India, a team at IIT Madras has developed a solar-powered mobile unit that converts the recyclable plastic waste into fuel oil that is cheaper than diesel. This equipment can generate up to 700 ml of oil for every KG of plastic used, and the oil can find its usage in off-highway applications. The sludge formed in this pyrolysis process is compressed and converted into light charcoal briquettes which are fed into the unit for running.
  • Plastic is often seen as a worthless material considering its omnipresence nature. Consumers must sense the value of plastics and encourage reuse, recycling. Enterprises can promote the circular economy by introducing systems of deposit, return of some plastic products directly like PET bottles. A successful example in this regard is the introduction of the Swachh Bharat Recycle Machine introduced by Indian Railways on a pilot basis at few stations in Mumbai. Consumers are also rewarded with a cashback into their PayTM account for dropping bottles. This coupled with extended producers’ responsibility, will stimulate recycling. Germany and Japan are some of the very few countries that have succeeded in establishing the responsibility for recycling used plastic bottles by the manufacturers.
  • A Thailand supermarket has come up with a unique way to replace packaging plastic for vegetables and food. They started to wrap it in banana leaves instead.
  • Today, scientists and researchers are working extensively to find a way to solve the problem of plastic waste lying for years. One recent breakthrough is the invention of a bacterium by two young researchers that transforms plastic into carbon dioxide and water. Through this technology, they intend to clean the beaches as well as manufacture raw materials for clothing purposes.
Representational image.

How Can Individuals Make A Difference

Individuals have the power to wield more than consumers by refusing single-use plastics and change their buying habits in supermarkets. With such a positive move, retailers will not be able to ignore these changing trends and push the suppliers for the best alternatives. Consumers have to be the change drivers and make informed decisions and develop sustainable consumption habits.

Our willingness is our biggest strength, and each of us can change the way we use plastics and eliminate them. Not only by saying ‘No to Single-Use Plastics’ but also by imbibing it culturally, we will able be able to ask for reducing plastic waste, recycle more, and put pressure on the manufacturers to design innovative products which do not harm nature.

Some of the things that we can do in our homes

  • Sort waste at our sources for easy recycling
  • Avoiding overpackaged products for consumption
  • Wherever possible, employ reusable containers for storing food, drinks
  • Reduce plastic footprint at our homes
  • Check for recyclable products before buying
  • Proactively learn about plastic alternatives
  • Educating our friends, family about the crisis and possible solutions
  • Refuse disposable plastics and single-serving packaging
  • Use reusable or degradable shopping bags
  • Pressurize our local municipalities to put in deposit schemes
  • Find innovative ways to replace single-use plastic in our everyday life

As informed consumers can promote sustainable products, they play a decisive role but need the support of governments, producers as well as retailers so that plastic products are labeled as per standards. Societal pressure will push manufacturers to come up with new things and ultimately can lead to the reduction of plastics. By continuously monitoring and communicating the same, trust and commitment can be built among the public for the greater good.

Upcycling also called creative reuse is possible for many plastic goods following the end of their primary life. By encouraging this, a new second life can be given to plastics and adopt reusable reduce the demand for new resources and will provide an alternative to their plastic equivalents.

How Can Governments Make A Difference

Through strong policies from governments, a circular economy can be realized, and plastic waste can be reduced. Measures can be taken by the government with different timelines.

With the widespread outcry over plastic pollution, governments have taken insignificant measures to wash off their hands and prevent harm to them from the public. Plastic bans by several state governments are one of them which was not implemented thoughtfully as people tend to revert to their original practices.

Measures by the government can be divided into short, medium, and long term as below.

Short term measures

  • Improve waste collection, sorting, and reprocessing centers
  • Building robust infrastructure to handle waste generated daily
  • Formalizing the informal network of waste recyclers
  • Create awareness among the public by using social media and promoting through iconic persons
  • Put in place deposit schemes

Medium-term measures

  • Focus on incentives to shift consumer purchasing habits
  • Push retailers and manufacturers to move towards plastic alternatives
  • Inject more money in R&D
  • Standards to identify labels correctly and ensuring the same
  • Tax on plastic bags usage
  • Create viable markets for recycled plastics
  • Establish clear regulatory frameworks for biodegradable plastics

Long term measures

  • Encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation
  • Voluntary agreements with companies and
  • Spare enough time to small scale industries to shift to alternatives from plastics production
  • Implementation of extended producers’ responsibility nationwide
  • Establish nationwide plastics protocol
  • Scale up the adoption of reusable plastic packaging

Governments around the world are spreading awareness about the magnitude of the crisis. As single-use plastics, polythene bags and other polystyrene products are the most visible of the pollution caused by plastics, they have been the focus of government action.

A few of the initiatives that the government can take-up

  • Assess the social costs of any plastic ban introduced and evaluate how the poor are affected and how different sectors, industries are impacted
  • Targeting single-use plastics at both source and consumption
  • Determine the right approach in introducing alternatives by considering the socio-economic status of various states and regions.
  • Coordinate with all stakeholders in the society including retailers, consumers, industry, environmental groups for taking their inputs
  • Sensitize the public about the damage caused by disposable plastics and the costs associated with it.
  • Provide economic incentives in the form of tax cuts, R&D support, partnerships, support for projects, etc. to encourage the adoption of alternatives
  • Abolish import duty and taxes on materials used to manufacture plastic alternatives
  • Provide incentives to the industry as well to embrace the shift to sustainable alternatives production
  • Divert the revenue generated through taxes on plastic usage for public welfare or supporting green projects or building infrastructure for recycling
  • Monitor the improvements and communicate to the public about the progress
  • Make plastic alternatives promotion as a part of CSR activity and reward companies who actively endorse their responsibility towards plastics elimination

How Can Enterprises Make A Difference

Many experts opine that the problem of plastic is genuinely a problem of design. Our world economies must change with regards to the systems, manufacturing, distribution, and consumption of plastic as plastic is designed to be thrown immediately after use. The private sector must innovate and adopt new models reflecting their responsibility towards the impact caused by their downstream products. Recycling of plastic as we all know is today compromised on every front as the products are not adequately designed. As more and more chemical products are added to plastic polymers, recycling gets complicated and expensive.

The abundance of plastic can give a false impression that the damage is done to society, living creatures, and the environment is minor. UN Environment has led the research on the promising plastic alternatives to inform and inspire budding entrepreneurs, companies, start-ups who are willing to innovate. They have categorized the alternatives into three categories: Natural polymers, Synthetic biopolymers to biomass base, which are compostable and Non-plastic materials that are durable and reusable.

On the other side of the coin, all companies must once again use design thinking to design and develop products making them easier to recycle. They also should take ownership of the plastic packaging and are to be held accountable for any ramifications of their products on our environment.

As a part of public awareness, it should be made obligatory for all businesses to mention clearly the type of packaging material, life, and other special composting needs to decompose it. Through this, consumers will get clear information and can base their decisions regarding purchase.

Conclusion

Our present situation is dire, but there is a solution to this problem. By changing our behavior and forming a movement, we can reverse the trend of plastic waste and preserve our oceans, species, and ecosystems. There is no universal solution to this crisis. We all must work together to reduce our dependency on plastics that are inflicting enormous damage to the environment

Combating the pollution caused by plastic worldwide, every stakeholder needs to act responsibly. Manufacturers need to redesign the products, packaging, and delivery mechanisms that prohibit the usage of single-use plastic products. They should also take the onus and bear the financial costs in managing post-use waste. Governments should mandate EPR, enforce the ban of single-use plastics usage and usage of toxic additives in manufacturing. The recycling ecosystem needs to be developed, and waste pickers, handlers, recycling industry workers should be respected and promoted. Open litter burning should be banned strictly as well as monitoring of waste incinerators should be carried out by the government agencies.

The situation today is compelling enough for each one of us to reassess the plastic usage, packaging, and disposal that did not garner enough attention.

plastic
Representational image.

Our vision for the future of plastics should inspire us to turn this waste into an economic opportunity. Making all plastic recyclable can create lakhs of jobs, and entrepreneurs should be encouraged. It is the right moment for countries to seize this opportunity and promote a clean economy.

It is an undeniable fact that recycling and reuse plastic materials will primarily foster innovation and sustainable practices. We all are cognizant of the fact that it is neither conceivable nor prudent enough to remove plastics from society given our dependency on them. With plastic pollution and waste looming in our society, the use of alternative materials will be the immediate way forward to correct the situation.

Our world has witnessed an explosion of plastic production in the past few decades due to its convenience and inexpensive nature. Nation-wide prohibition of single-use plastics and plastic-based materials though has the potential to reduce the amount of waste being dumped into our environment must be executed systematically. By offering incentives to consumers in order to boost the usage of biodegradable bags and other nature-friendly single-use plastic alternatives, businesses can also benefit and utilize this opportunity to fill the void.

So far, the mediocre Government regulations have not led to complete behavioral change and single-use plastics continue to be used in many places in India. A reliable waste management system helps in preventing leakage of any plastic waste into our environment that is generated from households, restaurants, companies. Governments must spearhead the change initiatives and focus on building infrastructure and waste management systems, promoting sustainable alternatives, collaborating with industries, investing in R&D, and develop laws without any loopholes.

A complete shift to the usage of sustainable alternatives of plastics will take some time as the ecosystem needs to be developed. However, as a short-term measure, the focus should be on reinforcing waste collection and management systems, strengthening circular systems to bring down the scale of plastic waste pollution.

#UNSDG #SDG9 #IndustryInnovationandInfrastructure #plastic #pollution #industry #innovation #infrastructure #socialimpact #socialinnovation #change #development #sustainabledevelopment #environment #sustainabledevelopmentgoals #bestpractices #technology #stories #articles #world #india #unitednations #BeaBridgeforChange #BBC

(This story is published from a syndicated feed.)

Author: Mr.Hareesh Kodi, Supply Planning Manager, Foods & Premium Personal Care, Digital BU, Marico Ltd | MBA SJMSOM, IIT Bombay | Bosch India Ltd | NITK Surathkal

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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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