The use of single-use plastic items would attract punitive action across India from July 1, putting the spotlight on the silent killer and a global threat that pollutes air, water, and soil, damaging the natural ecosystem.
But why is it needed? For greater clarity and insight into the problem, it is significant to understand the true nature of plastics, the depth of its popularity, and the adverse effects of plastic waste.
We are surrounded by plastic, in the deepest oceans, the remotest valleys, the Arctic ice, and even in our very own bodies! Interestingly, plastics have also crept their way to Mars, left by the Curiosity Rover. We produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic in a year – a number that can nearly match the weight of the entire human population and is forecast to grow 60% by 2030 and treble by 2050, as per a Center for International Environmental Law report. According to the Union Environment Minister, Mr. Bhupender Yadav, India itself generates 3.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, a figure which has almost doubled over the last five years.
Nature of plastics and its role in pollution
A plastic (plastikos-to mold) is an artificial polymer-natural or synthetic substance composed of macromolecules. Plastics are composed of varied elements including carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. They have a diverse spectrum of properties and play vital roles in everyday life. Plastic is an obvious choice in every industry, as it is easy to manufacture, cheap, light, flexible, and durable as compared to other materials like glass, rubber, and metals. Although plastics have made considerable contributions in the fields of safety, electronics, medical devices, and packaging it comes with a great cost – the crippling burden of plastic pollution.
About 91% of plastic waste is not recycled. Out of the 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic produced, 6.3 billion metric tonnes is plastic waste, according to Journal Science Advances. Plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, out of which only 12% gets incinerated. The shocking increase in plastic pollution from the 1950s has left scientists appalled and environmentalists concerned. According to some reports, by 2050 the weight of plastics in landfills can be 35,000 times heavier than the Empire State Building.
Plastic wastes are non-biodegradable, hazardous to the environment, a threat to human and animal health, and a major contributor to climate change. They are not organic, and cannot be decomposed by microorganisms, degrading the environment and causing the atrophy of soil for eternity. Moreover, they spread toxins and the production and decomposition of plastics come from planet-warming fuels that also contribute to air pollution and cause illnesses like hormone-related cancers, infertility, and neurodevelopment disorders. Plastics also pollute the oceans-threatening the survival of entire ecosystems and infiltrating life-giving foodchains. The bulk of plastic wastes ends up in landfills, as litter in natural environments which eventually finds its way into oceans.
Impact on animals and humans
Plastics adversely affect millions of animals, birds, and marine life across the globe killing millions every year. Most animals suffer the tragic fate of entanglement or starvation. Approximately 700 species of animals, including endangered ones, are impacted by plastic pollution. Land animals including elephants, zebras, camels, and large mammals consume plastics which can be fatal and increase susceptibility to organ injuries, illnesses, and lower reproductive success.
When it comes to marine pollution, UK government data suggests that over 1 lakh marine animals, turtles, and a million sea birds are killed by plastics annually. Plastic has been uncovered from every single exotic creature of the Mariana Trench. The most overwhelmingly affected organisms are marine life, bearing the brutal brunt of plastic pollution.
As I write, 50,000 plastic bottles are being thrown away, along with a bulk of plastic bags and food wrappers. About 12 million tonnes of plastic are poured into the ocean every year, making up about 80% of ocean debris (Eunomia 2016 and IUCN 2020). Most marine animals ingest the plastics, which give them a sensation of being full and then pass away from starvation.
At sea, plastics are broken down by sunlight, wind, and wave action into microplastics, which are impossible to retrieve. From here on, it’s almost game over. As per recent media reports, microplastics have been found in over 100 aquatic species, including fish, shrimps, and mussels, fated to land on our food plates and eventually end up in our digestive systems.
Tiny pieces of plastics have invaded everything – our bodies, foods, atmosphere, and water. According to research published in the Journal Environmental Science and Technology, on average, we approximately consume 50,000 microplastics in a year, not visible to the human eye. The report also discovered that an individual who consumes bottled water every day ingests a mammoth 90,000 particles of plastic in a year. The ingested plastic particles from fruits, seafood, and drinking water have the power to alter the gut microbiome, damage the immune system and cause metabolic diseases.
Solutions for such a massive problem can never be simple. However, the simplest advice by experts is to avoid plastics as much as possible and dispose waste meticulously. Judicious use of plastics, educating consumers, adopting planet-friendly alternatives like wooden sticks, recycled paper, bamboo, and clay cutlery, and recycling wastes will go a long way in our war against plastics. More specifically, the best antidote to microplastics is preventing waste from entering water bodies by implementing improved waste management systems, refined recycling schemes, and better product designs.
Change is happening and we must all join the movement. Small lifestyle changes like drinking filtered water, steering clear of plastic packaging, and avoiding certain cosmetic products can go a long way toward a healthy life and environment.
India is heading towards a smarter, cleaner, and sustainable future by launching a series of green initiatives. The most notable is the ban on single-use plastics, which account for 50 percent of all plastic wastes. Repeated communication on the ill effects of indiscriminate plastic use and fines for littering will ensure the much-needed behavioral change. An actionable path has been laid out and it all starts with us taking responsibility and pride in the wonders of our nature which are threatened by plastic pollution. For if not us, then who? So the next time you think of throwing that plastic wrapper on the road; think again. It may just land up in your digestive system.
The writer, a Gold Award winner in the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition 2021, is a football enthusiast, an occasional blogger and closely tracks issues around climate change.