THE QUANDARY OF PLASTICS

ZULKIF M. SHAIKH Date: 5th June, 2018
Co-Founder – Sanjeevani S3.

India is the host for the 2018 World Environment Day on June 5th.This year’s theme is “Beat Plastic Pollution”. With this article let us make an attempt to understand, what is plastic, where does it come from and what impact did it have on man and the environment?

Plastics are polymers which are derived from fossil fuels. Production of plastic is almost exclusively dependent on non-renewable sources. As such, plastic production and use is one of the root causes of fossil fuel consumption. Even if we switch to renewable vehicles, we will still be burning fossil fuels and dumping greenhouse gases into the environment to produce more and more plastic.

Why do we need plastic?
Leo Baekeland invented synthetic plastic (Bakelite) accidentally in 1907. Plastic bottles became a product of the masses in the 1950’s & plastic as a whole became a mainstream part of our lives in 1960’s. Every year the world uses 500 billion plastic bags, moreover each year at least 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans. This is equivalent to a full garbage truck being dumped into the ocean every minute. Our plastic consumption is increasing so drastically that we have manufactured/used more plastic in last decade than in the entirety of the 20th century.
Arguably, plastics are one of the most integral parts of any product line in the world. Developed countries use more than 30% of total plastics in the world. The use and development of new types of plastics have led to dramatic changes in human consumption and productivity with almost every human made item of the 21st century having at least 1 plastic sourced component.

How has plastic contributed to this world?
Plastics are very useful as they have exceptional properties. They can be coloured, melted, shaped, squashed, rolled into sheets. They also became a part of our lives as they are hygienic and non-toxic. Right from packaging, transportation & healthcare, we have become loyal consumers of plastic. However, due to our carelessness and non-chalant behaviour of employing it plastic is so ubiquitous that we buy 1 million plastic bottles every minute.
Plastic has changed the outlook of FMCGs & has allowed for tremendous advances in the medical field. From creating prosthetic limbs, to reducing the prices of medical devices, plastic has allowed for economical healthcare for some of the most neediest sections of human society.

Do we really need to get over plastic products?
Humans believe that they are the intellectual overlords of planet earth, we have brains to think and we have senses to identify, analyse & solve problems. But in our hubris, we have created a very complicated problem.
How did it go wrong? First and foremost, the biggest problem with plastic is improper disposal,i.e littering. Secondly, use of plastic products which can be used only once, like; straws and disposable cutleries. 50% of the plastic we use is one time or disposable.

How difficult it is to avoid single use plastic??
We need to make a strong recycling lobby to curb & encourage plastic recycling and curb plastic pollution.
For Example; Lets consider the case of PET, Nowadays, if a panhandler approaches you at the signal, and if you deny giving money, they will ask for packaged mineral water, this is not for water, but every plastic bottle fetch 1 rupee in the recycle market. The panhandler is aware about the incentives for recycling.

How can government play a part?
Rather than banning plastic, they should put a control on the subject, like, PET recycling lobby is strong for colourless (mineral water bottle) and Green (Soft drink bottle) but there is no recycling market for other colour bottles like blue/purple/neon/orange; If any company wants to use PET as their packaging material government should put limitation to use only green and colourless dye; This will make the recycling lobby for PET stronger.
Similarly, government should put control on all FMCG products using laminated pouch as packaging material.
We don’t need to fight plastic, rather we need to fight our habits in day to day life which lead to such problems. Blaming is the easiest thing we humans can do, but, accepting our mistakes and attempting change is the more difficult part. It is not necessary that the problems we Indians are facing will be the same for all the countries. Social problems are always site specific and their solutions are available at that particular site itself, we just need to open our eyes with a kind heart and rational approach.

Umar bhar Ghalib, yahi bhool karta raha…..
Dhool chehre pe thi, aur aaina saaf karta raha!!!!!!
-Mirza Ghalib