Coming soon… the ‘Plastic Man’

What is Environment Day to you? About trees? Pollution? Waste? Or, June 5?

Yes it is all of that and also much more. It is about all that goes hand in hand to make life on the planet possible. It is about giving space for everything in the chain of life. It is about the air we breathe and the oxygen we need. The clean water we need and the soil to grow our food.

It is also about the birds and bees, whales and tigers, frogs and earthworm. Unless they are healthy and their habitats conserved, all of life on the planet will suffer.

This time the UN theme for Environment Day is on beating plastic pollution. This is as serious an issue as climate change. Equally or more neglected.

Plastic has been found in Marine trench and Himalayas, the deepest and highest part of Earth. We have over 70 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans today and by 2050 this will outnumber the fish out there, says Unesco.

Now, plastic remains in the environment for up to 1000 years and even then breaks down into micro plastic pieces, less than a mm in size. This gets ingested by marine animals or gets into the air from the water surface when a bubble breaks. Finally, it gets into our system via the air, food and water we take in. These micro particles have been found in our lungs, liver, spleen and even the placenta of new born babies.

Considering that some chemicals in plastic like methylmercury and flame retardant are known to be toxic, we need no tests to show their effects. So also the PCBs in plastic.

Research surprisingly has been few. But, a recent study has shown that exposure to plastics cause lung disease, cancer and birth defects. This is so especially for those working in production of plastic, recycling plastics or even those living near these areas. The main ingredient in plastic is a derivative of crude oil and natural gas.

But how has this reached this situation?

We currently produce globally over 400 million tonnes of plastic products annually, with more than half of it being single use plastic. Globally we create plastic waste of 20 million tonnes waste annually.

Statistics cite that 1 million plastic bottles are sold in a single minute, and more than 5 trillion bags!! Half of all that ends up as waste.

By 2050, we will be globally producing 1124 million tonnes of plastic. Of this over 30 per cent goes into packaging alone! And of that, almost 90 pc is trashed. Online shopping has added its bit.

The more of plastic we consume, more it will be produced and more fossil fuels harvested. Indirectly, the plastic use is also upping the global warming then.

A news report said that India generates around 3.4 million tonnes (MT) of plastic waste annually but only 30 per cent of it is recycled. The consumption rose by 10 per cent in three years during which period the waste output doubled! Generating around 3.4 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, the country only recycles 30 per cent of it. Rest ends up in landfills or water bodies. Most cities and towns do not have an integrated solid waste management system. Or, the waste recycling units cannot handle more than 10 per cent of the plastic waste.

Image by Moondance at Pixabay

For instance, we have the Swachhta Kendras (SK), set up under UNDP’s plastic waste management programme – Project Prithvi – in partnership with Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages (HCCB) Private Limited.

The SKs not only handle plastic waste but also shred the waste, making it suitable for recyclers. This processed plastic finds use in building roads, making water pipes for agriculture use. Thus it supports a ‘circular economy’ of reducing manufacture, use and disposal of plastics. Project Prithvi has processed and recycled more than 4000 metric tonnes of plastic waste and diverted it from reaching landfills or the sewage system in Bengaluru alone, says UNDP. An example of sustainable resource use, the project, by recycling of all kinds of plastic waste along the value chain aims at a zero-landfill operation.

Running in over 30 cities of India, Project Prithvi has in three years of its launch managed 83,000 MT of plastic waste scientifically and generated revenues of Rs 516 million through the sale and recycling of plastic waste, says UNDP. However, more is needed given the consumption and waste.

Karnataka alone generates around 2.96 lakh tonnes of plastic waste annually, of which almost 60 per cent is unaccounted for, while the rest is recycled or incinerated.

In a metro like Bengaluru, plastic makes up 20% of the 4000 tonnes of municipal solid waste generated daily. 

Are we helpless? Or can we do anything at all?

Yes, it needs a strong will from our governments to implement a strict ban on single use plastics as also to enforce a strong waste management policy. People need to be encouraged to recycle or re-use plastic. Ideas have been floated around for charging people by weight of the plastic they dispose. Authorities must implement strict rules to fine people for littering.

Let us join hands with like-minded people in our community and work to remove plastic from the trash, let us do this by consciously reducing our use of single use plastic, and where unavoidable, making maximum use of the product, recycling it and then disposing it in the right way.

Educate your friendly neighbourhood kirana shopwalla about plastic and help him reduce his contribution to plastic waste in innovative ways. Involve youth and children of your area in programs to do this. Be involved with local groups in your area who are already doing this.

Together, let us make the environment cleaner and safer for all life. Let us not have Plastic Man join the legions of Iron Man, Spider Man and Bat Man!