It has come down to the planet or plastic: the choice is ours
Not a day goes by when my social media feed isn’t flooded with articles highlighting the pollution that plastic is causing all over the world. With rapidly increasing production of disposable plastic products, plastic pollution is a pressing global challenge today.
“Because plastic wasn’t invented until the late 19th century, and production really only took off around 1950, we have a mere 9.2 billion tons of the stuff to deal with. Of that, more than 6.9 billion tons have become waste. And of that waste, a staggering 6.3 billion tons never made it to a recycling bin—a figure that stunned the scientists who crunched the numbers in 2017.”
Source: National Geographic
A planetary crisis
The UN has already deemed plastic pollution as a Planetary Crisis. Plastic pollution is so ubiquitous today that to combat this challenge, the United Nations had to negotiate to write a global treaty. But we need to come together and take important steps to solve this issue.
Plastic pollution in one line can be described as the presence of plastic in places which has started to impact the natural environment negatively. Its footprint is not just limited to the seas, oceans, and beaches- it has now embedded itself in our food chain.
We have all seen the photo of the deceased Laysan Albatross whose corpse shows a stomach full of plastic, or the video of that turtle out of who’s nose a plastic straw had to be extracted. And there are so many more photos and videos as evidence of the very real and extreme danger this material poses to our ecosystem.
“There will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050” – it’s a prophecy that scientists around the world have made, repeatedly. It’s a prophecy that sends a chill down my spine every single time I hear it. But before passing on our judgement on the material, let’s delve a little into what it really is.
What is plastic?
According to Wikipedia – “Plastic is material consisting of any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds that are malleable and so can be moulded into solid objects.”
Plastic made out of petroleum is the one used widely for the most common reason; it is cheap to manufacture and distribute. Plastics can be made out of renewable materials too, but they are not as cost-efficient. And plastic is not just of one kind, not everyone knows it, but there is a variety of the material out there in the market which has become essential to our society.
- Our light-weight water/beverage bottles, food packaging, etc. are made out of polyethene terephthalate (PET/PETE) plastic.
- Then polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is used in clothes, toys, drainage pipes, high-density polyethene (HDPE) used in milk, shampoo and cleaning product bottles.
- Polystyrene (PS) that makes our take away cups, yoghurt pots, etc. and many more other forms and types of plastics are used in a variety of items of our daily lives.
It is at our house, it saves lives in hospitals, helps engineers create technological marvels, it is used in space exploration, and the list is endless. So how come a material of such great use, could be such a huge problem?
The real issue
Plastic is a non-biodegradable substance, which means that long after you are gone, the plastic bottle you just bought will still remain; it won’t degrade and become part of nature.
Now it’s not so much about the material per se, but how we use and more importantly dispose of it. The furniture in your house, your laptop, clothes, aren’t as much of an issue as the plastic bag you use, or the water bottle that I mentioned above or the food you buy from supermarket that is wrapped in plastic. Because this is the plastic that you may use, just once or twice and then dump in the bin. It is called single-use plastic.
The nightmare that is single-use plastic
We produce over 300 million metric tonnes of plastic every year, and close to 50% of that number is single-use plastic. Now you already know what is considered as single-use plastic. You probably see it around you all the times, in the disposable cups, bags, and bottles. These are used and thrown out almost immediately. And they are the ones that have caused such a menace.
Let’s go back to the bird- its stomach was laden with single-use plastics, bottle caps, straws. etc. The straw that the poor turtle endured is also single-use plastic. These plastics are of such poor quality that they are manufactured for the very purpose of being discarded in mostly a single-use.
Now since it does not degrade, it is tough to discard. Just throwing it in the bin does not make it disappear from the face of the earth. It is thrown either in a landfill or into the sea/ocean. And it is there, where plastic’s miraculous durability turns into a curse.
The villain of the story
The dispose yet undisposed plastic enters our water bodies and sits on our land for a long time. About 8 million metric tonnes of plastic enters our ocean every year. And it is estimated that a total of 150 million metric tonnes of it circulate our marine environment. A lot of environmentalists say that it is almost like dumping a garbage truck full of waste into the ocean every minute of every hour of the day for the whole year.
These colourful plastic pieces attract seabirds, like the Laysan Albatross. They scoop down to pick it up, mistaking it for food, to either consume it themselves or feed it to their spawns. Honestly, I can’t tell which is more tragic.
About 60% seabirds and as far as 100% of sea turtles already have plastics in their system because of this.
The plastic not consumed by them, over a period of time, breaks down into tiny fragments which are known as microplastics. These are mostly consumed by small and medium-sized fishes. Actually, now you can find big chunks of plastics in whales too, so, to be honest, no marine creature is truly spared.
This is how plastic has entered our food chain. The small and medium-sized fishes consumed by humans have plastic fragments present in their system, and through them enters ours. Plastic waste on land is just as dangerous, just like marine animals, plastic is also consumed by the ones living on land. Cows, goats, dogs, and an endless number of these creatures have found to have plastic inside their digestive system.
And, plastic does not biodegrade, so the digestive system of these creatures is not able to digest it. and hence these fragments choke the animal slowly from the inside to its ultimate demise.
How to fight plastic pollution
Now we know the scale of dangers of this substance, the question arises what can be done about it.
A lot of plastic producing companies ease our guilt by promising us that this plastic will later be recycled and not cause harm to the environment. But if that were true, we wouldn’t be in such a huge mess right now, so let’s now unpack the real truth about recycling.
We discuss why it is time to put a stop to greenwashing.
The cycle of recycling
Out of the 300 million tonnes of plastic, only 10% of it is actually recycled, the rest is either incinerated which in turn produces toxic gas causing air pollution, or sent to landfill to pollute the environment.
We assume that the entire bottle that we are using would again be processed into a new one through recycling, but it is not so.
First of all, not all plastic bottles are recycled. For decades China has been the prime buyer of recycling plastics, most of the plastic waste from other countries are shipped here and processed into other items. But in early 2018, China introduced a “National Sword” policy. This was China’s way of telling the world that it no longer wants its plastic waste after all that plastic waste from other countries started taking a toll on Chinese communities tasked with processing it.
So out of 5 bottles, only 1 actually goes through recycling, and the rest end up either in a landfill or in water. And even out of that one bottle, only a third is actually recycled, rest is just waste, again, to be dumped.
So re-cycling, although marketed as the ultimate solution, is anything but.
The role of Government and private organizations
Let’s say, in an ideal world, we do somehow figure out how to re-cycle the entire plastic waste of the world. Even though it will clean up our land and our water, it won’t still be enough. Because more and more plastic will still be produced with the growth in population and its demands.
So, the root cause of the plastic problem is its manufacturing, that has to be limited or curbed to get rid of plastic. And that can only be done when companies and organizations come together and find alternative solutions to plastic and use those instead. For the floor to be cleaned, the tap needs to be closed first.
The Government should also help out these organizations by subsidizing the plastic alternates to encourage their usage. A lot of countries like Canada, Zimbabwe, China, Colombia have either banned or are in the process of implementing a complete ban on single-use plastic. India also recently made the list by putting a blanket ban on this material.
Such huge numbers and massive consequences may make you feel that it is now in the hands of governments and corporations, and you alone won’t be able to make a difference. Let me tell you now that you can and you will. In fact, only through our individual efforts will this problem be actually solved.
The three Rs of wisdom
Environmental rock stars like Bea Johnson and Lauren Singer introduced the world and me to zero waste living. It is a style of living where you minimize your waste and maximise your life. The common mantra between them and many environmentally conscious people is the concept of the three R’s which stand for Refuse/Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
- Refuse/Reduce – Say no to using single-use plastic. When you go out shopping carry your own bag (preferably made out of cloth) so that you do not have to carry your items in a plastic bag provided by the mall or mart. Stop buying bottled water, and your own wherever you go. Re-fill it with drinking water whenever you can. While ordering drinks at a café, make a special request to the server to not add a straw. Once you start figuring out ways to refuse plastic, you will reduce the waste from your life
- Reuse – It basically entails swapping disposables items with reusable ones. Like cloth napkins for tissues. Swap disposable food storage items with jars made of glass or metals. Even your pens, instead of going out and buying cheap plastic ones, buy a few good ink pens with an ink bottle, and they last more than those plastic pens and make you look stylish.
- Recycle – Now the waste that you couldn’t ignore or reuse should go into recycling. The zero or minimal waste lifestyle does not mean recycling more waste; in fact, it actually means to recycle a minimum amount of waste, thanks to waste reduction in the first step.
As you can see that you are not alone, neither are you helpless. All you need to do is take that first step, say that first no to single-use plastic, and you will definitely do your bit in changing the world as we know it.