How The Growing Plastic Pollution Is Impacting The Environment?

by Ruhail Maqbool Sheikh

Since its invention, we have produced about 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic – around 335 million tons in 2016 alone. More than 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic have become waste since 1907.

Plastic waste on the banks of a small rivulet in south Kashmir. The entire waste is eventually getting into oceans and consumed by marine life. Pic Ruhail Maqbool

When the God granted king one wish, he wished that everything he touched should turn gold. The king was delighted when all the buildings and trees around him turned into gold. But after some time he found in horror that his food also turned into gold. He felt sad with pain and hugged his lone daughter and she also turned into gold. Finally, he realised his mistake but it was too late. The richest man in existence was starving, alone and heartbroken.

We also got a similar wish when we learned how to turn brown stinky goo into magic plastic. Cheap, sterile and convenient, it changed our lives but this wonder of technology got out of our hands. Plastic has saturated our environment. It has invaded the animals we eat and now it is finding its way into our bodies.

What is plastic?

Plastics are a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that use polymers as the main ingredient. Their plasticity makes it possible to be moulded, extruded or pressed into solid objects of various shapes. This adaptability, plus a wide range of other properties, such as being lightweight, durable, flexible, and inexpensive to produce, has led to its widespread use.

Plastics typically are made through human industrial systems. Most modern plastics are derived from fossil fuel-based chemicals like natural gas or petroleum; however, recent industrial methods use variants made from renewable materials, such as corn or cotton derivatives. Today almost everything is at least partly made from plastic. Our clothes, phones, furniture, toys, computers and a lot of these things are made of plastic. There are other forms of plastic as well – microplastics.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are everywhere. These are smaller pieces lesser than 5 mm. The term macroplastics is used to differentiate microplastics from larger plastic waste, such as plastic bottles. Some of them are used in toothpaste and cosmetics. But most result from floating waste that is constantly exposed to UV radiation.  Approximately more than 50 trillion such particles float in the ocean, where they are even more easily swallowed by all kinds of marine life. This has raised concerns about health risks from the chemicals that are added to the plastic. There is also evidence that it interferes with our hormonal system.

Microplastics have been found to travel into the food chain and are being found in honey, sea salt, beer, tap water and household dust around us. Plastic has long ceased to be a revolutionary material, instead, it became trash. Coffee cups, plastic bags or stuff to wrap a banana. We do not think about this fact a lot. Plastic just appears and goes away. Unfortunately, it does not since synthetic polymers are so durable, plastic takes between 500 to 1000 years to break down. But somehow we collectively decided to use this super tough material for things meant to be thrown away.

Around 40 % of packaging is plastic. Since its invention, we have produced about 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic – around 335 million tons in 2016 alone. More than 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic have become waste since 1907.

Billa, whose actual name is Bilal Ahmad Dar, has been earning his livelihood from Wullar lake, by collecting the plastic from the key water body.

So what did we do with all this waste? Only a few per cent can be recycled or burnt. Finally, a lot ends up in the ocean and most of the marine animals keep getting trapped in plastic and swallowing it – many animals starve with stomachs full of indigestible trash. In 2018 a dead sperm whale washed up in Spain had eaten around 32kg of plastic bags nets and other plastic products.

We need a lot more research before panic is justified. But it is safe to say that a lot of stuff happened that we did not plan for and we have lost control over the plastic to a certain extent which is kind of scary. Now the question is whether should we ban plastic completely, but unfortunately it is more complicated than that.

Plastic pollution is not the only environmental challenge we face but some of the substitutes we would use for plastic have a higher environmental impact in other ways. According to a recent study making a single-use plastic bag requires so little energy and produces far lower carbon dioxide emissions compared to a reusable cotton bag, that we need to use our cotton bags even a thousand hundred times before it would have a lower impact on the environment than the plastic bag.

We are left with a complex process of tradeoffs. Everything has an impact somehow and it is hard to find the right balance between them. Plastic also helps to solve many problems that we do not have very good answers for at the moment. Globally one-third of all food that is produced is never eaten and ends up rotting away in landfills where it produces methane and the best way of preventing food from spoiling and avoiding unnecessary waste is still plastic packaging.

It is also important to note where the vast majority of the world’s plastic pollution is coming from right now. Approximately 90% of all plastic waste comes from just ten rivers in Asia and Africa, the Yangtze in china alone flushes 1.5 million tons of plastic into the ocean each year.

Countries like India, China and Indonesia industrialized at an impressive pace in the last few decades, transforming the lives of billions of people. This was so fast that the garbage disposal infrastructure could not keep up with collecting and recycling all the new waste this brought. Investing in infrastructures in developing countries is just as important as fighting plastic pollution with campaigns and redressing products to minimize unnecessary plastic production.

Ruhail Maqbool Sheikh (Jal Shakti)

The bottom line is as long as we do not address plastic pollution from a global perspective. We will not solve it. Plastic pollution is a complicated problem. We found a magic material and we had a good time with it, but we need to be careful or just like the king, we will end up in a world that we did not wish for. Our individual daily actions still have a huge impact on what really matters. Refuse disposable plastics, and convince your friends, and family to do so. Pressure companies, sellers and request administration to take the necessary steps to keep our water resources and our environment safe. Together we can beat plastic pollution.

“No doubt, humans will do a lot of damage before we ultimately destroy ourselves. But life will continue without humans. New forms of intelligence will emerge long after this human experiment is over.”

(The author has masters in Environmental and Occupational Health and Analytical Chemistry, besides a management degree in Human Resource Management. He works for Jal Shaki Department in Jammu and Kashmir. Views are personal.)

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