Asked to name three top environmental concerns, most of us are likely to list global warming, deforestation and air pollution. Plastic pollution may not figure even in our top five. We presume that only cows, goats, dolphins, seals and the like die of ingesting plastic when the fact is that it has entered the food chain.
Our lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys contain microscopic bits of plastic. In fact, a recent study suggests that we are eating, swallowing and breathing in about 2,000 tiny pieces of plastic each week, the equivalent of a credit card.
The polymer has caused such havoc that the United Nations has flagged plastic pollution as a global crisis. We generate 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year; equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. Huge islands of floating litter can be found in the oceans. No wonder, the mass of plastic in the oceans exceeds the amount of plankton six times over.
Imagine the strain on the planet with 20 per cent of our garbage consisting of plastic which -- unlike wood or paper -- can take 300 years to disintegrate. It is to raise awareness and to eliminate the use of plastic bags that today (July 3) is observed as International Plastic Bag Free Day.
Heeding the green mantra, ‘Think global, act local’, let’s think of substitutes for plastic bags, which humans use at the rate of a million a minute. Simply switch to cloth, jute or canvas bags like mankind once did. Or make denim bags from your old jeans. For the fashion-conscious, there are a variety of trendy bags by green entrepreneurs, such as Aarohana EcoSocial Developments of Pune and EnviGreen of Mangalore.
Bangladesh was the first country to ban thin plastic bags in 2002 after they were found to be the biggest villains behind flooding caused by clogged drains. India woke up to it in 2006 and today most states have imposed complete or partial bans on plastic carry bags. However, implementing the law is another thing.
On Gandhi Jayanti in 2019, PM Narendra Modi announced that single-use plastics would be phased out by 2022. It’s an optimistic deadline, considering the resistance from plastic manufacturers, the lacunae in the law and our own inertia.
That brings us to recycling and reusing plastic waste. One of the exciting ways is to melt it and blend it with bitumen for laying roads. Such roads are smoother and water resistant. India has 34,000 kilometres of these plastic roads.
Bombay experimented with it in 2014 at Dadar but nothing happened till 2018, when it was tried on a small stretch at Bandra’s D'Monte Park. The last one heard about plastic roads was in February 2020 when the BMC decided to apply it across the city. It’s stuck reportedly because there’s just one vendor supplying the plastic blend.
Recycled plastic is also used to make a variety of products ranging from flower pots to bumpers on cars to drainage pipes. This World Environment Day, Mumbai got a plastic recycling plant with a capacity of 25 tonnes a month, thanks to a partnership between Bisleri and the BMC. Plastic waste is also used to feed cement kilns.
Another way of disposing of plastic waste is the cold plasma pyrolysis process which converts it into hydrogen, methane and ethylene. The government says it supports such initiatives but they are as visible as plastic roads in Mumbai.
As much as 40 per cent of plastic waste generated in India remains uncollected, Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar disclosed in the Lok Sabha in November 2019.
A whopping 25,940 tonnes per day of plastic waste is generated in India, said Javadekar, quoting a study by the Central Pollution Control Board. Since then, the pandemic has only led to a surge in pollution from disposable products such as plastic face masks, hand sanitiser bottles and syringes.
No green option, yet
The minister also stated that there was no green alternative to plastic available although the Central Institute of Plastics Engineering & Technology is working on it. Now, scientists are trying to synthesise an enzyme from plastic-eating bacteria that can dissolve plastic waste in a jiffy.
Before it can be recycled, plastic waste has to be collected and sorted; a job that is done by the 40 lakh unsung ragpickers in India. According to the ‘Banega Swachh India’ survey, they collect five lakh tonnes of PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottles every year. In 2017, Bilal Dar, an 18-year-old ragpicker at Kashmir’s Wular Lake was appointed brand ambassador of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation after the PM picked him up for praise in his ‘Mann ki Baat’ for keeping the lake clean.
Yet, a win-win solution where ragpickers, as well as the city benefit came from inspired individuals such as Imtiaz Ali of Bhopal. He quit a well-paying government job in 2008 to form Sarthak Sanstha, which began organising ragpickers and waste collection. Initially, help came not from the civic authorities but from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Today, Sarthak has grown into a network of 19,000 ‘safai sathis’ across Madhya Pradesh, who are earning a steady salary and living with dignity. Recently, a ‘safai sathi’s’ son from Dewas in MP cleared the AIIMS entrance test in his first attempt.
The Sarthak model, which has self-help groups, has now been replicated across India and even in Bangladesh. Part of the credit for Bhopal and Indore consistently topping the Clean City competition goes to Sarthak.
Marina Walter, Country Director, UNDP, sums it up: ‘‘How our cities manage plastic waste will be critical to their survival. Indore’s example demonstrates the importance of involving all stakeholders including households and businesses that generate waste, non-government organisations that spread awareness, and municipalities and waste pickers entrusted with managing the process.’’
The recycling hub of Mumbai is Dharavi. The informal factories in India’s largest slum generate employment for 2.5 lakh people and amount to an economy estimated at US $500 million. Entrepreneurs here are truly slumdog millionaires.
Such success stories though cannot hide the fact that we are drowning in plastic waste. Big business and powerful nations are yet to join the battle wholeheartedly. Humanity’s plastic crisis has been compared to an overflowing bathtub and our remedial action to mopping the floor. We need to turn off the tap or pull the drain stopper.
Hazardous to humans
And those who are still under the illusion that plastic is not such a big threat should listen to Ruthann Rudel, Director of Research, Silent Spring Institute, a leading scientific research organisation dedicated to uncovering the links between chemicals in our everyday environment and women’s health: “Plastics are made of a complex mix of chemicals, many of them are endocrine disruptors or are of concern for other health effects.
“A recent National Academy of Sciences report found that the important vinyl ingredient DEHP is ‘a presumed hazard to human reproduction’ at current exposures, and that’s just one plastic ingredient! Plastics also contain many toxic additives, such as flame retardants, metals, anti-microbials, non-stick coatings, and more.
“The fantasy that plastics are an inexpensive material is just that – a fantasy that fails to acknowledge the tremendous costs we all pay.”
Now, it is for us to make the choice: planet or plastic.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. He welcomes feedback on email@example.com