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Act now or Earth will choke on plastic

By Vishwa.Mohan@timesgroup.com | Jun 04, 2023

Today is World Environment Day and the UN’s focus this year is on the plastic pollution crisis. While plastic has become a vital part of everyday life, experts warn that its annual production could treble over current levels by 2060. At the current recycling rate of 9% that would be a recipe for disaster. The only way out of this mess is to use less plastic and recycle more

The world now produces 460 million tonnes of plastic every year – double of what it did 20 years ago – and at the current rate plastic production will treble by 2060. That’s because affordable, durable and flexible plastic is in everything from packaging to clothes and beauty products.Unfortunately, more than two-thirds of plastic products – such as packaging – have a short useful life, and they add to the pile of toxic waste. Globally, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, while 22% finds its way into landfills, oceans, rivers, lakes and other reservoirs where it not only damages the soil and poisons groundwater but also chokes marine life and enters the food chain, posing a serious health hazard.

Two Main Problems

Ravi Agarwal, director of the environmental NGO Toxics Link, says plastics have two main problems. “Firstly, they are not biodegradable as waste, which globally exceeds 350 million tonnes a year. They can persist for hundreds of years as waste.”

Agarwal is an expert who has worked in the fields of waste and circularity for years. He says more than 5.3 trillion plastic pieces are already in the oceans. They can be found in every corner of the Earth, down to the Mariana Trench – the deepest point in the ocean – as floating masses in ocean gyres, and in fish and birds that mistake it for food.

“Plastics have become new ‘bio-forms’ entangled with living creatures, not infrequently killing them. Microplastics, which are 5mm in size or less, have been found in fish, drinking water, human blood and in soil.”

The second problem, Agarwal says, is that “plastics are often carriers of very toxic chemicals that have been introduced to make them usable.” Heavy metals like chromium, endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) like BPA (bisphenol A), phthalates, BFRs (flame retardants), etc, leach out from plastic packaging and products like feeding bottles, teethers and electronic products during use, or during waste disposal and recycling. They can cause cancer, neurological effects, etc, with even a low dose over a prolonged period.

Rivers Stuffed With Waste

Plastic touches every part of our lives. About 60% of material made into clothing – including polyester, acrylic and nylon – is plastic. Industrial fishing gear adds about 45,000 tonnes of plastic to the oceans every year. And plastic is even used in seed coatings for agriculture.

The OECD’s first Global Plastics Outlook report released last year noted that in 2019 alone, 6.1 million tonnes of plastic waste had leaked into aquatic environments and 1.7MT had flowed into oceans. “There is now an estimated 30MT of plastic waste in seas and oceans, and a further 109MT has accumulated in rivers,” it said. So, even if plastic waste mismanagement stops today, the plastic that’s already in rivers will continue to leak into the oceans for decades.

Role In Global Warming

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which has been working on a legally binding instrument to deal with plastic pollution, says plastics also contribute to the climate crisis:

“The production of plastic is one of the most energy-intensive manufacturing processes in the world. The material is made from fossil fuels such as crude oil, which are transformed via heat and other additives into a polymer. In 2019, plastics generated 1.8 billion MT of greenhouse gas emissions – 3.4% of the global total.

Circularity Is The Answer

What’s the way out? Experts agree that it’s time to shift to a “circular” plastic economy in which plastic is not used and discarded but kept in the economy at its highest value for as long as possible.

“Clearly, we need to use plastic, but we need better management based on the principle of minimising what cannot be recycled; understanding the limits to recycling, and banning items like multilayered plastic,” says Sunita Narain, director general of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the New Delhi-based think tank on environmental issues.

But while systemic reform is needed, individual choices can also make a difference. That’s why many countries, including India, have taken a citizen-centric approach to avoid single-use plastic products wherever possible.

India already has a countrywide ban on single-use plastic, and this World Environment Day (June 5) it will make a big pitch for tackling plastic pollution as a key component of its Mission LiFE (Lifestyle For Environment) – a mass movement for an environmentally conscious lifestyle. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will himself appeal to citizens on the occasion to deal with plastic through collective actions.

Making Better Plastics

Should we aim to return to a plastic-free life? Agarwal is sceptical about the idea. “Technically, we can live without plastics, of course, but these materials have become integrated into almost all aspects of our lives today. Hence, contemporary life without plastics seems hard to conceive.”

Instead, he recommends making better, environment-friendly plastics. “This can be achieved by making materials that are degradable (bio-plastics), or using plant-based materials to break plastic’s link with fossil fuels. Secondly, toxic chemicals in plastics can be substituted with safer additives to make them easier to recycle. And finally, we can minimise their use by reducing packaging materials, eliminating non-essential or single-use plastics, and improving waste management and disposal.

World Riding A Plastic Wave

> Annual consumption grew four times over the past 30 years> Global production doubled from 234 million tonnes (MT) in 2000 to 460MT in 2019. Likely to touch 1,231MT in 2060

> Plastic waste generation touched 353MT in 2019 – double of 2000 

> Plastics account for 3.4% of greenhouse gas emissions> Overall, 50% of plastic waste goes to landfill, 19% is incinerated and 22% is not collected

> Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled. While 15% is collected for recycling, 40% of it is disposed of as residues

> In 2019, 6.1MT plastic waste leaked into aquatic environments and 1.7MT flowed into oceans

> Seas and oceans now have 30MT of plastic waste, while rivers have accumulated 109MT


> In 1869, the first synthetic polymer was developed in the US as an alternative to ivory in billiard balls 

> In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic plastic — Bakelite. Its non-conductive and heat-resistant properties made it a popular material in early gadgets like radios, phones

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> Bakelite was aand led to the invention of now-common materials like polystyrene in 1929, polyester in 1930, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polythene in 1933

> In 1935, nylon — the first synthetic fibre — was invented and used in World War II to make parachutes, ropes, etc. British scientists created Plexiglas, replacing glass windows in aircraft

> In 1941, an English company invented polyethylene terephthalate (PET), initially to be blended in textiles and popularised in the 1970s as bottles

> Plastic debris in oceans was first reported in the 1960s. After a boom during WWII, plastics began losing their popularity in the ’70s and ’80s amid a growing waste problem, prompting manufacturers to develop reusable, recyclable plastics

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> But plastics are still widely used — since 1950, nearly 10-billion tonnes have been produced. In 2022, 175 members of UN pledged to bring a legally binding treaty by end-2024 to end plastic pollution. In July 2022, India banned single-use plastics

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