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Plastic has turned into an environmental disaster

Cutting down trees to increase the production of paper products combined with the increased energy used to make them has an equally detrimental effect on the environment

opinion Updated: Jul 24, 2018 13:17 IST
Gurugram,Latika Thukral,plastic
Plastic dumped by a warehouse in Basai village in Gurugram, June 2018. (Pankaj Gupta / HT File Photo )

I once read that garbage isn’t exactly rocket science, but given the filth around us, one would think it is. Single-use plastic grocery bags came into existence 50 years ago. It was the answer to a question no one was asking and solution to a problem that did not exist. In the past, people carried stuff in cloth bags, sacks etc. Today, we see plastic bags and bottles reach the landfill after being used for a mere 12 minutes.

Out of the millions of plastic bottles being bought today, not to forget straws and cups, only 20% is being recycled. The rest simply finds its way to the landfills where it does not degrade or it is thrown into rivers and seas. This is even affecting the wildlife, marine and land animals, who eat the plastic and suffer fatal consequences.

Plastic has become an environmental disaster. Most plastic is made from petroleum or natural gas; non-renewable resources extracted and processed using energy-intensive techniques that destroy fragile ecosystems. The manufacturing of plastic and its destruction by incineration pollutes air, land and water and exposes workers to toxic chemicals, including carcinogens.

Pick any product off a grocery store shelf, it is either made using plastic or packaged in plastic, we even go as far as to wrapping our vegetables in cling film just so that we can extend their shelf life. We often hear the term “biodegradable plastic”, which is just a green spin to make you spend more money.

People need to first understand what it means for something to be biodegradable.

Something is considered biodegradable if it can be broken down by living things, usually by microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. The meaning of biodegradable gets complicated for plastic. There are certain conditions such as temperature and moisture which effect how well plastic breaks down. This means that biodegradable plastic will not simply break down wherever it ends up. More so, if not disposed off correctly or if it ends up as litter, it might not break down at all.

Compostable plastic, on the other hand, will break down when placed in a composting facility. When disposed off correctly, a compostable plastic will almost completely biodegrade within 6 months. This is an improvement from 100 years for a normal plastic bag to break down in landfill.

Another form of plastic we see in the market is non-woven bags, which are made from non-woven polypropylene (NWPP) fabric. People seem to think they are cloth bags; however, they are 100% plastic and are even covered under the plastic ban. Given their cross-hatched design, these bags get mistaken for cloth. NWPP is a polymer known for its strength and durability, cheap and easy to manufacture. Being resistant to photo-degradation, NWPP takes at least 300 years to degrade. If they reach the landfill, these bags may never degrade. A limited life also means that they end up in a landfill where they are burnt. Burning of NWPP releases toxic dioxins into the air, which affects our already heavily polluted environment. The additives they contain leach in to contaminate soil and water.

Some types of NWPP are recyclable, but only 1% are recycled world over. Recycling NWPP is prohibitively expensive and energy-intensive.

Plastic, in general, does make sense to use if disposed of correctly, which is something we don’t see happening and the plastic waste is simply sent to the landfill, where it sits for generations and we wonder if it ever breaks down.

People then turn to paper bags, which degrade faster but still are not a better solution for the environment. Cutting down more trees to increase the production of paper products combined with the increased energy used to make them has an equally detrimental effect on the environment.

What we can do is to simply reuse cloth bags and try and be more aware. The best way to reduce one’s plastic footprint is to simply USE LESS PLASTIC.

(A co­founder of iamgurgaon, Latika Thukral and her team are aiming for one million trees in the city)

First Published: Jul 24, 2018 13:16 IST