Plastic production across the globe is in an upward trend, whereas the recovery, recycling and disposal are mostly insufficient with millions of tons of plastics ending up in landfills and oceans each year. Invented in the 1860s, it developed as an industry in the 1920s, and has become one of the fastest-growing global industries. From 1950 to 2012, plastics growth averaged 8.7 % per year, booming from 1.7 million tons to the nearly 300 million tons of today. Plastics replaced materials like paper, glass and metal as packaging materials and in today plastic packaging accounts for more than 30 percent of packaging sales. It is estimated that about 4 percent of the petroleum consumed worldwide each year is used to make plastic, and another 4 percent is used to power plastic manufacturing processes. According to the United Nations, it takes 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture the 102 billion plastic bags that Americans use annually.
The average annual consumption of plastic by a person in North America is 139 kg, Western Europe 136 kg, Latin America 32 kg and Asia 36 kg. However, the increase in rate of consumption for the period 2005-2015 for these countries are North America 33 percent, Western Europe 37.4 percent, Latin America 52 percent and Asia 80 percent, which is a matter of deep concern. In India the plastic consumption rate is growing at 10 percent per year. Moreover, the disturbing fact is that around 56 percent of plastic waste from Western Europe and North America lands in China which is then again distributed mostly across the Asian countries in some for or the other. Data of United Nations Environmental Program reveals that around 43 percent of the plastic used worldwide is disposed of in landfills. Further, around 10 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year. A recent study has conservatively estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing a total of 268,940 tons are currently floating in the world’s oceans. The plethora of plastic comes from bags, bottle caps, and plastic fibres from synthetic clothes that have washed out into the ocean from urban rivers, sewers, and waste deposits. It takes around 600 plus years for a plastic product to degrade. Marine vertebrates including many species of sea birds are particularly susceptible to plastics in the marine environment. They mistaken the small pieces of plastic floating in the ocean as food and ingest it, leading to lethal and sub-lethal consequences. Researchers have established that sea birds are excellent indicators of ecosystem health. What is alarming today is that, a recent study published in the ‘Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences’ (31 August, 2015), estimates that 90 percent of individual sea birds alive today have consumed plastic. Analysis by researchers have revealed that in 1960, plastic was found in the stomachs of less than 5 percent of sea birds by 2015 that figure had risen to 90 percent and based on current trends, plastic ingestion will affect 99 percent of the world’s sea bird species by 2050. This plastic debris results in an estimated $13 billion a year in losses from damage to marine ecosystems, including financial losses to fisheries and tourism as well as time spent cleaning beaches.
The global community has united to address the issue of marine litter through legislation, enforcement of international agreements, provision of reception facilities for ship-generated wastes, adoption of improved practices for the disposal of waste on land, and support for extensive beach clean-up activities, as well as information, education and public awareness programs (UNEP 2005). Despite these efforts, the situation has not improved, rather the quantity of plastic waste in the world’s oceans are growing. So, legislation, law enforcement and technical solutions only shall not be able to address the problem. The most important approach to tackle this problem would be to analyse and act on it from the cultural angle, where emphasis has to be on changing the attitude, behaviour of the masses through transparent and effective management approaches.
The major chemical ingredients of plastics are Bisphenol A (BPA) and Phthalates. BPA is mostly used in plastic water bottles, baby bottles, plastic wraps, food packaging and phthalates in flexible plastic, vinyl toys, shower curtains, wallpaper, vinyl miniblinds, food packaging, plastic utensils, cosmetics, personal care products and plastic wrap etc. Studies have revealed that these chemical ingredients are capable of disrupting the delicate human endocrine system, leading to developmental problems. Thus, the usage of these plastic products may lead to health hazards along with environmental hazard. Today, it is impossible to think of life without plastic today and so the only way out for us is to reduce the usage of plastics in our day to day life. One of the most simple and easiest ways that we can initiate immediately is to replace our plastic water bottles, utensils, plates and bowls with that of glass, steel or bell metal plates, which have been used for generations by our elders. We can also reduce our use of disposable plastic products like cups, glass etc., and switch over to such items made form paper, reduce usage of disposable polythene bags by using Jute/ Cloth bags for shopping of grocery and other items. Other small steps which we can also immediately start are stop using of disposable razors, minimize use of disposable diaper by switching over to cloths, using thermos in place of plastic water bottles in office, stop buying bottled water as much as possible, reduce dependence on processed and packaged foods, use BPA free water bottles, store in steel, glass or ceramic containers, stop using straws and chewing gum etc. According to data available, the bottled water growth is highest in Asian countries; Indonesia 24 percent, China 18 percent, India 16 percent, whereas the growth in USA is only 3 percent along with France and Germany where it is only 2 percent. So, bottled water shall be a menace for us in the years to come. Thus these small steps by us will go in a long way in making our planet environment friendly for all the living beings to survive.
Governments must regulate the plastic industry and encourage recycling. Incentives may be offered to industries producing environment friendly bio-degradable plastics. Government must also initiate measures to raise public awareness about the perils of plastics and the damage it causes to the environment. In order to prevent littering of plastic on land and sea, proper waste management programs are to be developed. Further, research studies must be encouraged to develop environment friendly and bio-degradable packaging alternatives that can live up to the expectations. This is a long journey and will take time to bear fruits. But one low hanging fruit in this area may be an attempt for reducing unnecessary plastic consumption and proper waste management through recycling. The developed nations have already initiated measures to control the health and environmental hazards caused by plastics with favourable results. Now, the need is a whole hearted effort by the global community with specific thrust on and by the developing countries as these countries consumption of plastics are going increase exponentially in the years to come due to their huge population. This will pose a serious threat to our environment and eco-system.
To make a visible impact the five/four star hotels/resorts across the globe may start doing away with the present process of providing plastic bottled drinking water in the rooms and disposable toiletries like disposable razor, comb, tooth brush etc. Drinking water may be served in glass or steel jars and the toiletries may be provided on request. They may put up with information that this small step of theirs will be indeed become a giant leap and request cooperation from the guests.
Multinationals like Coca Cola, Pepsi may think of regulating the production of plastic bottles for soft drinks as about 2.4 million tons of this plastic (Polyethylene Terephthalate -PET) is discarded annually, with 75 percent going straight to the landfill and 25 percent landing up in the oceans. They may switch over to BPA free plastic bottles and as an innovative idea; these MNCs may come out with an incentive scheme, wherein the plastic bottle depositor is offered a concession in price if the bottle is returned. This will reduce the disposal of plastic soft drinks bottles into the landfill and the sea. No, doubt it will be a direct hit in their profit margin, but such an idea or any other out of the box thinking or innovative idea shall definitely contribute in making our earth a better place to live in.
Compiled in 20 Nov, 2015…