Waste management – a word that has reached our eyes and ears through print media, broadcast media, government policies and many others. A word that has occurred so recurringly and constantly that it has become just like age-old traditions — existing just as a name. The quote by Desmond Tutu, ” Do your little bit of good where you are; its those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world” hits home. Individual efforts can make a global impact and help revive an important principle of conserving the environment that everyone talks about but the practicality of which is often ignored. In today’s world, ‘waste’ is almost synonymous to ‘plastic’, so much has its influence increased in our daily life. Although we get the ‘feel good’ feeling about waste management when we recycle plastic, the next time you put some plastic article in the recycling bin, chances are one to nine that it will actually get recycled. The time has come when we should seriously think about plastic and all the harm it has caused. In the meantime, we can undo the damage done till today by turning plastic waste into benefitting wealth through sagacious waste management.
Plastic, in its literal sense, is a wide range of malleable synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds. To us, the common people, it is something that is found in almost every object, from a toothbrush to a giant machine. Most plastics originate from crude oil. Plastic is classified into seven categories according to the Resin Indentification Codes (RIC). Unfortunately, only the last three categories- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) and Polyethylene Teraphthalate (PET) are recyclable today. This is what makes it essential to have a basic knowledge of plastics before buying the next plastic soda can or tossing it into the recycle bin. More than action, the awareness and gravity of the issue is of utmost importance. Once this is understood, the action will follow on its own.
Since humans have this insatiable appetite for plastic and the tendency of its en masse disposal, it becomes all the more crucial to apprehend fully the complications plastic conceives for every living being on earth. Marine ecosystems have been worst affected by plastic. According to Plastic Oceans International, 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced every year, 50% of which is for single use purposes; and 8 million tonnes of it finds its way into oceans annually. A trash island called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is formed in the North Pacific Ocean. Almost 114 marine species consume microplastics obliviously and nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are affected by plastic. Plastic never gets decomposed, it just degrades into smaller and smaller fragments called microplastics which, today, can be found from the top of Mt. Everest to the depth of Mariana Trench. As for us humans, we literally eat, drink and breathe plastic. It reaches our dining table through biomagnification. When plastic is burnt, it releases harmful gases such as sulphur dioxide,NOX, methanol, ethylene oxide, etc. which contribute to air pollution. A startling report by World Health Organisation in 2018 proved the presence of microplastics in 90% of the bottled water that we drink. Morever, the plastic articles that don’t make it to the recycling bins, get jettisoned in landfills and trash dumps, leading to soil pollution.
And if all these issues were less, Covid-19 further exacerbated the situation by sparking a plastic pandemic. The world saw an estimated global use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves every month in this period. The result was 30% more waste generated in 2020 than in 2019. As such, due to stringent lockdowns and the pandemic, rubbish and recycle collection apparatus are in a state of confusion. There is also a decline in recycling programmes. Many states of different countries are considering suspension of recycling programmes to use the funds elsewhere. Workers, too, hesitate to collect single use, biomedical, plastic waste for the fear it may be contaminated. Joffrey Peltier, member of an environment organisation in France, found copious amounts of latex gloves, face masks and bottles of hand sanitisers already littering the Mediterranean Sea.
To counter all these depressing problems, the world needs to adopt a multi-pronged strategy ranging from recycling to complete ban on single use plastic. The 3R mantra (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) is a knight in shining armour for all countries. The globe is now waking up to the harmful effects of plastic and slowly but surely, awareness amongt individuals is increasing. Appreciable efforts are being taken in the national as well as the international arena. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has started Plastic Waste Management Programme (2018-2024) in India. It has established 22 ‘Swachhta Kendras’ across 20 cities in the country. It promotes the collection, segregation and recycling of plastic to boost circular economy and also improvement in the socio-economic conditions of waste-pickers. A major drawback of recycling plastic is that it can be done only twice or thrice per article. And each time it is recycled, some amount of virgin plastic needs to be added to it to make it able to compete with articles newly entering the market. Therefore, many states in India and also other countries have resorted to ban the usage of plastic as much as possible. Tamil Nadu has carried out Operation Blue Mountain in the Nilgiris to ban plastic use. It has also come up with an unique solution of incorporating plastic waste in road construction. 1031 kms of rural roads have been consructed in Tamil Nadu using plastic waste so far. Sikkim is the first state in India to ban plastic bottles and disposable foam products. Maharashtra became the 18th state in India to ban single use plastic. The Sustainable Plastic Wate Management Plan,2009 launched by Government of Himachal Pradesh focuses on controlling plastic waste and developing a systematic disposal mechanism.
Endeavours are also carried out worldwide to curb plastic use. Over 30 top industrial giants in the world have made an Alliance To End Plastic Waste in 2019 and have launched 14 projects in SouthEast Asia and Africa including Philippines, Indonesia and Ghana. 250 organisations accountable for 20% of plastic packaging around the globe have launched New Plastics Economy Global Commitment in collaboration with the UN to reduce plastic waste and pollution. Canada and Costa Rica are both aiming to be the first country in the world to completely ban single use plastic by 2021. To ensure individual participation, in Germany, you are awarded 0.25 euros for every plastic can or bottle that you recycle. Furthermore, scientists have also contrieved biological elucidations to deal with plastic debris. Bacteria like Ideonella Sakaiensis and mealworms and waxworms can degrade plastic, if not completely destroy it.
Conclusively, it is inevitable that we can’t live without plastic today. So, it is prudent to make use of those types which are least harmful. Its the nethermost we can do to save the planet from absolute destruction. Since recycling of plastic is limited, we can restrain the rampant adoption of single use plastic from the beginning itself. The bottomline is, let governments and countries continue their efforts on the large scale, but we can start micro-development today, right here, right now. Bridling plastic use will go on in the world, but, till then, we can liberate Mother Earth of plastic waste, not only by disposing and recycling it, but also by turning into our asset, our wealth.