ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Mounting Plastic Waste

With the surge in plastic refuse, the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality will not work.

 

Public pronouncements are regularly made by political leaders to ban plastic use. These have not, however, received a firm and determinative response. For instance, it was announced by the Prime Minister that India will be made plastic pollution free, but a blanket ban on single-use plastic as part of a broader campaign to “rid” India of it by 2022 was held off. It is a measure that was perceived to cause further disruption in the economy that is facing a slowdown, as it could lead to a closure of about 10,000 industrial units, besides inviting the dismay of consumer firms.

Even with speculations of a ban, it was evident that the basic groundwork was missing. There remains a lack of clarity on the definition of single-use plastic, with no guidelines issued regarding its usage or any clear plans forwarded to stop the usage or to provide for alternatives. While individual bans in different states have also not proved to be a solution, there is undoubtedly a need for phasing out the problematic plastics that cannot be recycled. Most single-use plastic products are consumed and discarded within a few minutes of their use. E-commerce giants and packaged food item companies are major users of such plastic.

In the recent decades, there has been a drastic change in the composition of waste, with the increase in the use of such plastics. Around 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste is generated in India every day. Of this, nearly 40% is neither collected nor recycled. It ends up either polluting water, clogging drains, or contaminating soil. Plastic pollution is so widespread that images of turtles, cows, or other species in the deepest reaches of the ocean and the remotest polar regions choking (either with their guts clogged or punctured, or a plastic straw or cigarette butt stuck in their noses, or a plastic noose strangling them) are now common.

Current research has now also established that humans are ingesting about 250 pieces of microplastic per day, or plastic equivalent to a credit card in a week. Such microplastic is not only generated from the breakdown of mismanaged plastic waste, but is also directly released as microbeads in facial wash or toothpaste. The main source of ingestion remains tap and bottled water.

However, most of these facts, even if known, have not managed to move humans to reduce plastic use. Not only is the throwaway culture at work here but there is a sense of convenience and indispensability attached to plastic use. In medical use, for instance, plastic is considered safe and clean, even though there are reports indicating that plastic bottles contaminate the medicines stored in them and standards for safe plastic packaging are not maintained in India.

Use of plastic has become part of a culture in which those who consume and litter are not supposed to be responsible for either cleaning after themselves or to bother about what will happen to the waste they are producing. The innards of this kind of lifestyle are reflected in the festering garbage in the overspilling landfill sites, with the height of the Ghazipur landfill in Delhi touching 65 metres. Such garbage dumps are emerging as a serious threat to life with leachates in the mixed and untreated waste contaminating water and the carcinogenic pollution released when it is set to fire.

With plastic waste, segregation at the source is the key to make recycling viable. Most municipalities, however, are struggling to implement existing plastic and solid waste regulations. In the absence of proper waste management, degraded and dirty plastic makes recycling more expensive, unsafe, and water intensive. Multilayered plastics used in most food packaging are difficult to recycle and a mandatory collect-back system needs to be ensured by an effective implementation of extended producer responsibility. There is also a need to further develop the recycling technologies and processing methods, as most of the plastic in India is downcycled, which means PET (polyethylene terephthalate) gets recycled into a low-quality product.

However, a circular plastics economy—that is, when all the produced plastic gets reused and recycled—is possible only to an extent, as recycling has its limits and can be carried out for the same plastic only a few times. Also, recycling trade work has worked in a way that toxic waste and polluting factories have been moving to the “lands and hands of the poor” in the name of commerce and livelihoods. Further, companies in India have shown preference to importing of plastic, despite import bans, as they find it cheaper than collecting and recycling locally generated waste.

There have been end-of-life solutions for plastic, such as its usage in constructing roads and buildings. But, even so, plastic is going to remain in the fabric of the planet. Alternatives that are adopted instead of plastic, be it paper, cloth, glass, etc, also have their own ecological footprints. Bioplastics made out of plant material or even areca bio plates are not easily biodegradable if littered in the open environment.

Mounting waste, thus, is a problem that is getting created because of improper disposal, as much as by increased consumption. In addition to the prudent use of different materials, what needs to be addressed is the throwaway culture that replaces the tendencies of reuse, and a disregard and disassociation with the waste that gets produced. If not reduced, societies will keep choking on the waste that they produce.

Updated On : 1st Nov, 2019

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