Plastic, plastic everywhere! Blue, green, red, yellow and a slew of such myriad hues cover the earth’s landscape in a disorderly fashion. From packaging to the personal protective equipment (PPE) kits used by the frontline staff to keep Covid-19 at bay, every aspect of life revolves around the use of plastic. Thus, effectively, from the Arctic to the Antarctica, there is no space on planet earth that has remained untouched by the onslaught of plastic upsurge. The use of plastic is increasing at a colossal rate with nearly 330 million tonnes of it being added every year. Only a tiny niche out of this humongous stockpile of plastic is being recycled while the rest finds its place in the solid waste dumps or the water bodies. Apart from the pollution that it perpetuates, it also gives a massive jolt to the aesthetics of the landscape, which consequentially is blighted by the mounting swathes of plastic.
To begin with, plastic is a polymer, made artificially from petroleum products which consist of various small toxic particles which gradually tend to seep out with usage. They then circulate through the environment and eventually accumulate as waste since nature does not have an immediate mechanism for the degradation and natural assimilation of this novel material. In this regard, the situation emerging out of the spurt in single-use plastic has aggravated the issue. These plastic materials clog the drains and are one of the main reasons behind urban floods. Therefore, plastic penetration has become a major cause of concern as an uninterrupted build-up of this chemical beyond the carrying capacity of environment has given birth to a plethora of challenges that can turn out to be fatal if not seriously attended to. Such a narrative has also sounded an alarm on the issue of oceanic pollution. Most of the plastic waste inevitably finds its way into the oceans of the world and in this regard, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a case in point. It has threatened the existence of marine life and has created its strong foothold in the food chain through bioaccumulation of micro-plastics. Eventually, this gives way to a rapid and progressive magnification of these obnoxious chemicals across the length of the food chain. So, one can say without doubt that with every platter of marine food, an individual is also consuming a dose of plastics.
Having said that, plastic is a carcinogen that poses tremendous health hazards. The careless dumping of polythene bags etc. on the roadside causes the street animals like cows etc. to feed on them which eventually results in their death. Moreover, the explosion of plastic waste has struck the consciousness of mankind in the wake of the vulnerability of aquatic flora and fauna as more often than not, it is the oceans which are the final destination of plastic with nearly one truck load of plastic waste ending in the world’s oceans every minute. Some aquatic creatures accidentally feed on these poisonous micro-plastics while others get choked by the strangling grip of the plastic nets, mindlessly left to languish in the hydrosphere. This fateful end of the marine life is one of the most callous manifestations of human ruthlessness. This in turn wreaks havoc in the entire marine ecosystem, as a reduction in the numbers of a particular trophic level in the food-chain leads to a spurt in the population of organisms in the trophic level immediately below it and conversely, a decline in the numbers in the trophic level above it due to a dwindling prey base. Moreover, it also poses a major security threat to all those whose livelihood depends on the health of marine life as it is a major conduit of exports. A loss of livelihood is the harbinger of the advent of poverty, thereby initiating the self-perpetuating vicious cycle that operates to widen the already existing stark gap between the haves and the have nots.
In such a scenario, the need for a preventive check on the burgeoning proliferation of plastic has become more urgent than ever before as it is acquiring a dangerous form that is taking a toll on the socio-economic well being of every individual and the world at large. Nevertheless, a complete eradication of plastic will not be a feasible solution as this industry provides employment to a huge chunk of population with a major proportion of it being in the small scale industries. A judicious and innovative management of plastics therefore becomes the need of the hour at a time when even the formula of three R’s of ‘Recycle, Reuse and Reduce’ does not seem to provide a permanent solution. This is because recycling of plastic can only be done around four times. Moreover, the melting of plastic in the process of recycling releases extremely toxic gases that are perilous for the environment. Thus, the only way out is by evolving mechanisms through which this otherwise toxic substance can be metamorphosed into forms that have a sustainable utility and eco-friendly nature. The first step towards achieving this is invariably the segregation of plastic waste at source and putting in place a robust collection mechanism. In light of the criticality of this matter, there are numerous best practices which have been evolved by the world’s best and the most creative brains that aim to transform plastic waste into a meaningful resource. One such technology has been developed by Professor R. Vasudevan who has been given the epithet of the ‘Plastic Man of India’. He came up with the idea of utilising waste plastic by mixing it with bituminous for road construction and since then nearly one lakh kilometres of road has been built using this technology. This not only puts plastic to productive use but also augments the longevity of the roads so built. On the same lines ‘plastone block’ was developed which is a mixture of plastic waste and stone that can be used to prevent water seepage, as a cheap substitute for cement blocks. Each such block of plastone utilises nearly 300 plastic bags and five to six PET bottles. This marvellous Indian invention has received international acclaim with various countries approaching India for sharing the technology behind this breakthrough. Apart from this, there are multiple ‘Waste to Energy’ plants that use waste plastic as raw material. The Plasma Pyrolysis process adopted by Petroleum Conservation Research Association (PCRA) in collaboration with CSIR-CMERI is a prototype that has demonstrated the efficacy of plastic waste disposal and is poised to become a turning point in the field of energy economy. Plastic waste also finds utility in the construction of homes as is being done by a company called Conceptos Plásticos in Columbia which has undertaken the task of building homes for the vulnerable communities using this technology. Sweden presents another success story that has championed the process of converting waste to gold through a systematic waste segregation strategy. Moreover, it is interesting to note that the jersey of the Indian Cricket team is also made of recycled plastic. Thus, there are a slew of such visionary ideas that present a massive potential for the conversion of plastic trash to cash as is demonstrated by a number of flourishing industries in this business and the employment that they have generated.
Therefore, today is the time when the world must awaken to the malevolent impact of the plastic jungle that it is engulfed in and realise the need to shed their over-reliance on plastic by redefining its utility. This can only be achieved by making it a mass movement through targeted awareness generation programs at the grassroots level, stringent implementation of the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, prioritising research in plastic waste management, Extended Producer Responsibility and more importantly, self-regulation which calls for a behavioural change at the individual level. Opting for alternatives to plastic and downsizing its use to the extent possible would be the best way forward while ensuring that the plastic waste already in circulation does not become a menace to the existence of species and the environment at large. It is time when people must contemplate about the legacy that they would leave behind for the future generations. A little care and vigilance shown today would undoubtedly pave the way for a better tomorrow. It is this understanding which forms the pre-requisite for combating plastic pollution and in turn achieving the clarion call for ‘Swachh Bharat’.