Today is World Environment Day and the UN’s focus this year is on the plastic pollution crisis. While plastic has become a vital part of everyday life, experts warn that its annual production could treble over current levels by 2060. At the current recycling rate of 9% that would be a recipe for disaster. The only way out of this mess is to use less plastic and recycle more
The world now produces 460 million tonnes of plastic every year – double of what it did 20 years ago – and at the current rate plastic production will treble by 2060. That’s because affordable, durable and flexible plastic is in everything from packaging to clothes and beauty products.
Unfortunately, more than two-thirds of plastic products – such as packaging – have a short useful life, and they add to the pile of toxic waste. Globally, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, while 22% finds its way into landfills, oceans, rivers, lakes and other reservoirs where it not only damages the soil and poisons groundwater but also chokes marine life and enters the food chain, posing a serious health hazard. Two Main ProblemsRavi Agarwal, director of the environmental NGO Toxics Link, says plastics have two main problems. “Firstly, they are not biodegradable as waste, which globally exceeds 350 million tonnes (MT) a year. They can persist for hundreds of years as waste.”
Agarwal is an expert who has worked in the fields of waste and circularity for years. He says more than 5.3 trillion plastic pieces are already in the oceans. They can be found in every corner of the Earth, down to the Mariana Trench – the deepest point in the ocean – as floating masses in ocean gyres, and in fish and birds that mistake it for food.
“Plastics have become new ‘bio-forms’ entangled with living creatures, not infrequently killing them. Microplastics, which are 5mm in size or less, have been found in fish, drinking water, human blood and in soil.”
The second problem, Agarwal says, is that “plastics are often carriers of very toxic chemicals that have been introduced to make them usable.” Heavy metals like chromium, endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) like BPA (bisphenol A), phthalates, BFRs (flame retardants), etc, leach out from plastic packaging and products like feeding bottles, teethers and electronic products during use, or during waste disposal and recycling. They can cause cancer, neurological effects, etc, with even a low dose over a prolonged period.
Rivers Full Of Waste
Plastic touches every part of our lives. About 60% of material made into clothing – including polyester, acrylic and nylon – is plastic. Industrial fishing gear adds about 45,000 tonnes of plastic to the oceans every year. And plastic is even used in seed coatings for agriculture.
The OECD’s first Global Plastics Outlook report released last year noted that in 2019 alone, 6.1 MT of plastic waste had leaked into aquatic environments and 1.7MT had flowed into oceans. “There is now an estimated 30MT of plastic waste in seas and oceans, and a further 109MT has accumulated in rivers,” it said. So, even if plastic waste mismanagement stops today, the plastic that’s already in rivers will continue to leak into the oceans for decades.
Role In Global Warming
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which has been working on a legally binding instrument to deal with plastic pollution, says plastics also contribute to the climate crisis: “The production of plastic is one of the most energy-intensive manufacturing processes in the world. The material is made from fossil fuels such as crude oil, which are transformed via heat and other additives into a polymer. In 2019, plastics generated 1.8 billion MT of greenhouse gas emissions – 3.4% of the global total.”
Circularity Is The Answer
What’s the way out? Experts agree that it’s time to shift to a “circular” plastic economy in which plastic is not used and discarded but kept in the economy at its highest value for as long as possible.
“Clearly, we need to use plastic, but we need better management based on the principle of minimising what cannot be recycled; understanding the limits to recycling, and banning items like multilayered plastic,” says Sunita Narain, director general of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the New Delhi-based think tank on environmental issues.
But while systemic reform is needed, individual choices can also make a difference. That’s why many countries, including India, have taken a citizen-centric approach to avoid single-use plastic products wherever possible.
India already has a countrywide ban on single-use plastic, and this World Environment Day (June 5) it will make a big pitch for tackling plastic pollution as a key component of its Mission LiFE (Lifestyle For Environment) – a mass movement for an environmentally conscious lifestyle. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will himself appeal to citizens on the occasion to deal with plastic through collective actions.
Making Better Plastics
Should we aim to return to a plastic-free life? Agarwal is sceptical about the idea. “Technically, we can live without lastics, of course, but these materials have become integrated into almost all aspects of our lives today. Hence, contemporary life without plastics seems hard to conceive.”
Instead, he recommends making better, environment-friendly plastics. “This can be achieved by making materials that are degradable (bio-plastics), or using plant-based materials to break plastic’s link with fossil fuels. Secondly, toxic chemicals in plastics can be substituted with safer additives to make them easier to recycle. And finally, we can minimise plastic use by reducing packaging, eliminating non-essential or single-use plastics, and improving waste management and disposal.
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