Reading Time: 6 minutesOn 1 July this year, Western Australia and Queensland joined South Australia, ACT, Northern Territory and Tasmania in banning single-use plastic bags from major supermarkets. NSW remains the only state that hasn’t yet done so, although supermarket chains Coles, IGA, and Woolworths have now joined Harris Farm Markets, who went plastic-free in January this year.
In India, many states have had plastic ban and restrictions in place, as well as citizen championing, long before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India will eliminate all single-use plastic by 2022.
Convenient lifestyle has ensured that plastic has, in one way or the other, entrenched itself in every aspect of our daily lives. UN Environment’s latest report ‘Single-use Plastics: A roadmap for Sustainability’ says that 50 per cent of the plastic waste generated globally in 2015 was plastic packaging. The culprits found across the environment are, in order of enormity, cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags, and foam take-away containers.
The report was released in India this year on World Environment Day (5 June) by the Head of UN Environment Erik Solheim and Modi. It is the “first comprehensive review of state of plastics”, a global assessment of government action against plastic pollution. Major governments across the world had already announced changes in the two decades, some early adopters being Denmark (1994) and Sikkim (1998). UN Environment’s CleanSeas Campaign launched in February 2017 was all about showcasing what plastic waste is doing to our oceans, wildlife, and us.
So what is all the fuss about? We have been manufacturing plastic since the 1950s, and its production has now overtaken almost every other material.
The problem is that most of it is made for single use and throw. The product or packaging is either recycled, incinerated, landfilled, dumped in uncontrolled sites, or littered in the environment. Around 79 per cent of plastic waste then shows up in landfills, dumps, or the environment, with 12 per cent incinerated, and only 9 per cent of the 9 billion tonnes recycled.
The report also states that we consume an estimated one to five trillion plastic bags worldwide each year – a number that calculates to almost 10 million plastic bags per minute. Strung together, “they would go around the world seven times every hour and cover an area twice the size of France”.
Here are some disturbing statistics:
- 322 million tons of plastic was produced in 2015.
- Each year, 8 million tons of plastic is released into the ocean.
- 60 to 90 per cent of marine litter comprises of various plastic polymers.
- An estimated 99 per cent of sea birds will have absorbed plastic by 2020.
- 600 marine species are affected by marine litter.
- Around 50 trillion microplastic particles exist in our oceans already.
- Personal care and cosmetic products could contain equal amount of plastic they are packaged in.
- A single synthetic garment expends more than 1,900 microplastic fibres.
If we don’t start fixing our consumption patterns and waste management practices now, we will have 12 billion tons of plastic litter in landfills and natural environment by 2050. Many solutions are needed, including actions from government policies and consumer companies – that list is long.
Let’s talk about plastic in terms of its impact on our daily lives, and how we can reduce it.
Plastic bags and foamed plastic products are the most visible single-use plastics, and not a pretty addition to the environment, with windblown bags perched on fences or trees or floating in rivers. Single-use plastic bags, used to carry our grocery or personal items, are made of polyethylene – or polythene – a tough, light, flexible, synthetic resin obtained by polymerizing ethylene.
Foamed plastics, or commonly known brand Styrofoam, is used in food containers for its rigid, lightweight, and good insulation properties. Its main types are foamed polystyrenes, and foamed polyurethanes.
We also replaced traditional material with plastic in our consumption packaging. Milk, edible oil which once came in glass or metal, now comes in 3 or 5 layer film pouches. Toiletries (soap/shampoos) packed in paper and glass now use plastic pouches, or films. Cement and fertiliser jute sacks have been replaced by PP/HDPE woven sacks. Toothpaste’s metal tube is now a plastic lamitube.
The extent of damage
Some studies suggest plastic bags and styrofoam containers may not decompose for thousands of years, resulting in polluted soil and water, and causing consumption, clogging and entanglement hazards to wildlife on land and in the ocean.
Ditto with plastic bags since they are light, and easily blown in the air. UN campaigns have shown how high concentrations of plastic materials, mainly bags, obstruct airways and stomachs of hundreds of species, including unsuspecting birds. Turtles and dolphins mistake them for food. Recent evidence suggests that toxic chemicals residue from the manufacturing process gets transferred into animals’ tissues, and subsequently into the human food chain. Microplastic particles, mentioned earlier, are harder to trace, and difficult to clear out from open oceans.
Styrofoam products include carcinogenic chemicals like styrene and benzene, which are highly toxic when consumed. They affect the nervous system, lungs and reproductive organs. Toxins from containers transfer into food and drinks. Poor countries burn plastic waste for heat or cooking, harming people with its toxic emissions.
In the open air it releases the harmful gases furan and dioxin. Plastic bags or materials can block waterways, worsen natural disasters, and choke sewers leading to breeding of mosquitoes and pests, or lead to vector-borne diseases like malaria.
Recent reports also talk about microfibers from synthetic fabrics like polyester, rayon and nylon, fabrics used in 60 per cent clothing.
During wash, plastic microfibers are shed in the washing machine – a single jacket producing up to 250,000 fibres. These travel to wastewater plants and inject themselves into marine environments, again returning to the food chain. A 2011 study states that microfibers make up 85 percent of human-made debris on shorelines around the world.
Solution and tips
The best and most effective reduction strategy is to reduce the input of plastic. Here are some tips to avoid our day-to-day consumption of plastic:
- Avoid food, personal and cosmetic items packaged in plastic. Choose simple packaging, look for glass jars, and paper boxes.
- Pick cloth shopping bags. Keep them handy, so they are with you even when you go to the shops unscheduled.
- Say no to bottled water. Choose a glass bottle instead.
- Upcycle at home. Look up innovative ways to use old items instead of throwing.
- Say yes to reusable mugs for coffee. Keep them on your desk, in your car or in your bag for when you order.
- Say no to straws. If you must use them, buy them in reusable stainless steel or glass.
- Wear natural: avoid synthetic materials when buying clothes.
- Use washable and reusable cups, plates or utensils; look out for wood or compostable material options.
- Repair or upgrade your devices, instead of buying new.
- Carry your own container when you order take away, and to bring home leftovers, ask if you can get the food in your own reusable container.
PLASTIC, PLASTIC EVERYWHERE
- Low Density Polyethylene: Bags, trays, containers, food packaging film
- High Density Polyethylene (HDPE): Milk bottles, freezer bags, shampoo bottles, ice cream containers.
- Polyethylene Terephtalate (PET): Bottles for water and other drinks, dispensing containers for cleaning fluids, biscuit trays.
- Polystyrene (PS): Cutlery, plates and cups.
- Expanded polystyrene (EPS): Hot drink cups, insulated food packaging, protective packaging for fragile items.
- Polycarbonate, Polypropylene (PP): Microwave dishes, ice cream tubs, potato chip bags, bottle caps.