Plastic menace can be addressed only by curtailing its production and holding producers responsible, apart from recycling efforts and local initiatives
The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted plastic reduction policies at the regional and national levels and induced significant changes in plastic waste management. It has proved our dependency on disposable plastics, and the fragility of the waste management system. Social awareness about the impacts of plastic pollution is growing, and creative solutions to the 'plastic menace' are popping up globally; but how can plastic material be reduced, reused, repurposed, or salvaged so it is kept out of rivers, oceans and ecosystems in general?
Recent innovative methods for managing plastic waste at the local level such as plastic PET bottles stuffed with plastic-film food wrappers to make 'eco-bricks;' paving roads with plastic waste; making yoga-wear out of marine plastic pollution; weaving plastic into tote bags; turning plastic bottles into rafts etc. received much attention and applause. But I feel these are neither actual solutions nor they will help manage 389 million tonnes of plastics produced per year globally, while Asia accounts for 51 per cent of all plastic worldwide. By 2050, an estimated 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste will be sitting in landfills or polluting the natural environment. The environmental hazards posed by plastic waste has triggered a public outcry and propelled plastics pollution up global agendas.
Besides being crude and energy-intensive, recycled plastics tend to be of lower quality than newly manufactured plastics. Also, the biodegradable plastics derived from plant sources or spiked with oxygen and other chemicals to allow them to be broken down in the environment are complicating recycling efforts. Biodegradable plastics have a detrimental effect on the quality of recycled plastics, and there is no reliable way for recycling plants to separate these plastics from other forms.
The large production of plastic material, together with the mishandling of plastic waste, has resulted in ubiquitous plastic pollution and has dramatic consequences on flora and fauna. Plastics undergo a slow process of degradation on account of mechanical abrasion, oxidation, UV radiation or microbiological activity in the environment, which is defined as the mass loss of the polymer matrix and is due to the loss of monomers, oligomers or even pieces of non-degraded polymer. This process decreases the size of plastic debris down to microplastics (MPs) and nano plastics (NPs), defined as plastic debris with diameters between 1 μm and 5 mm and lower than 1 μm respectively. MPs are now found in soil samples, river samples, food samples, and ocean samples around the globe, even in the most remote settings. The exposed area of MP and NP increases drastically and so it is expected that the surface reactivity will be increased. The 9.25 million to 15.87 million tonnes of MP settled on the seafloor is far more than the plastic floating on the ocean's surface. MPs are also found in air particles and can be spread by wind. A variety of MP was even detected in the human gut. In recent years, hundreds of plastic objects have been found in the bellies of dead whales around the world. In marine environments, this plastic waste primarily made from polyethene could cause disease and death for corals, fish, seabirds and marine mammals. The Ganges and the Indus are two of the 10 rivers in the world that heavily contribute to plastic waste in oceans
Communities bear the brunt of environmental degradation while producers of plastics continue to push for market expansion and the perpetuation of cheap single-use packaging in a race to expand their business. The scenario will be completely different if companies had to account for every piece of plastic they make.
In this piquant situation what should be done and who will take the responsibility? Now, the root (extraction and production) of the plastic waste problem must be addressed. Local initiatives that skip deeper evaluation of the economic processes that create accumulating plastic wastes might actually prolong the problem. When responsibility for the problem is taken up by individuals, or communities, this deflects the burden of responsibility away from the producers. Essentially, it is the upstream extraction of natural resources to create plastics and the increasing production of plastic materials that is the problem. If it can be solved upstream, automatically the downstream effects of plastics go away.
Fundamentally the problem of plastic is not a question of 'mismanagement,' but about reducing this material in our global supply chains. Plastics have been shown to cause harm to health at all stages of their lifecycle, extraction, production, transportation, use and disposal. As long as we continue to allow the production of plastic food packaging and single-use, the problem will persist. At present, globally only 2 per cent of the material is recycled one to one, 8 per cent is downcycled, 4 per cent is lost in recycling processes, and the rest is not sorted and collected. Recycling becomes impossible in absence of guaranteed infrastructure and handling processes. Despite severe environmental problems, there is no slowing down in the production of plastic. Government must force the producers to design plastics out of the system.
In accordance with the "New Plastics Economy Global Commitment", signatories promise to increase plastic recycling as part of a broader commitment to circular economy principles aiming to achieve continuous use of resources and eliminate waste. But the progress is uneven — particularly when it comes to reducing single-use packaging and adopting fully reusable packaging. Now companies need to be pressed harder to act. If they were required to take responsibility for the whole lifecycle of their plastic products, they would be less inclined to use materials that are difficult to reuse or recycle.
Plastic pollution has been caused by "laziness and a failure" of imagination. Chemists gave plastics to the world more than a century ago and its use by common people is only a 70-year-old phenomenon. But this extraordinarily useful material is now a serious source of environmental distress. Chemists in both academia and industry are determined to find an environmentally benign way of unpicking plastics. Companies and governments must step up and take responsibility for stronger policies to ensure sustainable use of plastics, while extracting the most benefits (e.g., economic, safety and hygiene), and minimizing negative consequences (e.g., plastic waste mismanagement). It is high time to implement plastic directives. Though action cannot come too soon but let us make a start.
The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are personal