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June 04, 2019 Tuesday 01:38:16 PM IST


Guest Column

Plastic has become part of our everyday life. For many, it is difficult to imagine a world without it, but its debris has become a serious threat to environment and humankind is facing one of its major challenges ever.

Originally invented in the nineteenth century as a substitute for substances such as ivory, rubber, and shellac, plastic was conceived to facilitate mass industrial production. With resins, producers would no longer have to venture across the globe to tackle the problem of dwindling natural resources. 

Most of today's plastics are made of carbon and hydrogen molecules linked together to form polymers, derived from the refining of oil and natural gas. The word plastic comes from the Greek word ‘plassein’, which means to mold or shape. Polymers often are added with components such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, chlorine, fluorine, phosphorous, or silicon. Plastics in general are lightweight and can be molded, extruded, cast and blown into numerous shapes and films or foams or even drawn into fibres for textiles. In fact, these properties have made it a wonder material.

It wasn't until 1953 that scientists figured out how to make high-density polyethylene, the world's most ubiquitous plastic generally used to make grocery bags. From then on, plastics became highly popular and the industry has been booming.

Plastic has reached our lives deeply. Be it watching television, using a computer, or travelling in a bus, train, or aeroplane, plastics are in use. The everyday domestic applications of plastics are wide and varied. Dozens of medical tools are made of plastics.  Plastic has seeped into all levels of military gadgets as well. Automotive industry employs plastics in a variety of applications. Modern electronics as well as the telecommunications industry are other segments where plastics have found multiple uses. Plastic can also be engineered into a wide range of packaging that helps protect products we rely on every day.

Plastic components are made from oil and natural gas – resources that have significant environmental, political and social impacts during extraction and production. The environmental advocates have raised concerns about their effect on the planet for decades. But it drew the public’s attention only when the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a giant gyre of plastic litter found in the North Pacific Ocean in 1997. The Pacific Ocean is now six times more abundant with plastic waste than zooplankton.

Most plastics leach their toxins into the food they contain, particularly when polymers come into contact with fat or when they’re heated, for instance in a microwave. One of the early studies in 1974, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, USA, issued its first major regulatory decision when labourers engaged in vinyl production died from angio sarcoma, a rare liver cancer. Plastic continues to be manufactured with chemicals including forms of carcinogenic chlorine and vinyl chloride, and endocrine disrupting phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) in processes that release staggering quantities of pollution into the air, water, and soil.

Scientists are alarmed at the recent spike in human reproductive problems such as early onset of puberty, low sperm counts, female infertility, and increased rates of breast and prostate cancer, apart from styrene, found in most people’s body fat, migrates from products made from polystyrene like meat trays and take-out food containers.

Marine animals often mistake the plastic bags for food and ingest them (bags look just like jellyfish, a favourite treat for sea turtles), leading to starvation, suffocation or drowning. These micro-sized (1 µm–1 mm) and nano-sized (<1 µm) plastic particles not only kill more animals, they decimate coral reefs, and damage human health as they enter the food chain. Since the beginning of this century, governments across the world have been placing restrictions on plastic bags - from Bangladesh’s ban of the bags, which clogged the city’s storm drains and caused severe floods to Ireland’s 15-cent fee on plastic bags, which reduced plastic bag use by 90 per cent in just three months. US has initiated a plan to ban single-use plastic shopping bags.

Plastic is a non-biodegradable product and does not decompose by biological actions of microbes. Depending on the type of plastic used, it remains in soil for anywhere between 450 and 1,000 years. If a bottle contains one litre of water, it takes three litres of water to make it. Furthermore, 17 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture these bottles every year. That much fuel could be used in a million cars for an entire year. Approximately, 50 billion plastic bottles are used each year around the world.

Burning plastic products emits toxic chemical gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxides, methane, etc. which, in turn, pollute our environment. Hence recycling is a better way to do away with the plastic wastage. The process of recycling plastic is not as simple as recycling paper, glass and metals, because of the greater number of steps involved for extracting dyes, fillers and other additives used. Nevertheless, plastics are being recycled more than ever before and the process is growing each year with more advanced technologies and eco-friendly measures.

Plant cellulose, the raw material for the earliest plastics, is being looked at again as a base for a new generation of ‘green’ plastics. Neglect of masses and poor enforcement of the legislations have made the ban on plastic bags largely ineffective. People nowadays talk more about healthy food, but they serve it on plastic or Styrofoam plates. Gulping down such indigestible poison is bad for health. As a responsible citizen, we should always discard all the plastic wastes in proper dustbins. Switching to paper or jute bag is another way to curtail our dependence on plastic. This global issue can be solved through simple steps, but if neglected, can lead to serious consequences. Remember, every bit of plastic that has been created is still here. 

Sonia Sabu

The author is a freelance writer.

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