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Planet versus Plastic: Who will Win?

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By Roli S

I reminisce about the time when there was no plastic used in our households. The utensils were either of brass, copper, terracotta, wood, stone or clay, etc., or later with the arrival of stainless steel that too was visible on the dining table and kitchen. Jute or cotton was the material that was primarily used to make bags of all types. I distinctly remember that the garbage used to be mostly biodegradable. Human beings, at least in that part of the world where I was growing up, were unaware of things made of polymers. When the first plastic (a term used loosely for describing materials that can be formed and molded under heat and pressure but mostly refers to polymers, the chemical class of materials that make up all modern plastics) in the form of plastic plates and plastic glasses, plastic bottles entered our household, the elderly of the house had nothing to do with it as they considered things made from plastic, unclean, unhealthy and evil! Growing up I remember laughing at my grandma’s whim, when she refused to take any food on plastic plates or drink water from a plastic bottle! Things unnatural were not welcomed in our house! Now five decades later, on 22 April, Earth Day, I am fighting a war against plastic along with the rest of the planet! My planet Earth is at war against plastic that my grandma had refused to use in the past, as that not so literate lady with all her worldly wisdom had probably instinctively guessed the future of the planet scarred by the evil plastic. There is no point discussing much about the origin, invention and need to make plastic and polymer because human beings with all the knowledge and advancement in science and technology have taken the responsibility of inventing things that make life easy and comfortable for them and are a source of good income and business models. Very soon, due to its affordability, longevity, flexibility and demand the world markets were filled with all things plastic. Human beings realised that plastic is so ubiquitous that it became an essential component of their daily lives. Forgetting the dislike that my grandma had exhibited against plastic, I realised that plastic had become such a part of my life that it was almost invisible to me. I just did not see it until it was pointed out. And very soon I saw it everywhere. I saw it between my toes when I was walking in the garden, I saw it in my refrigerator, in the kitchen cupboard, on the dining table, hanging around the necks of little children, and in the hands of almost everyone when I go shopping in the market. Over the years I saw it under the trees or in the rivers, or lying by the side of the road, very strikingly shining amidst garbage dumps, on the beaches, even on a remote hillock, I noticed it lying and spoiling the beauty of the place! While taking a train ride, the plastic is most visible littered all over in dumps by the railway track, on the roof tops of the village houses and in slums, and stuck between trees and bushes and hanging in small and big sizes all over the small and big shops! Why is there plastic everywhere? Plastic is durable, easy to produce, lightweight, unbreakable, odorless, and chemically resistant. Its low manufacturing cost and durability and profitability are the two main factors responsible for its rapid growth. Well, profitable for the manufacturing industries and business houses all right but what about the aquatic animals, human babies, birds and environment? The thoughtless use of plastic has been nothing but bad news! Of all the waste we generate, plastic bags are perhaps the greatest symbol of our throwaway society. They are used, then forgotten, and they leave behind a terrible legacy. Not only are plastics polluting our oceans and waterways and killing marine life – it’s in all of us and we can’t escape consuming plastics. On this Earth Day, I wish to emphatically admit that plastic pollution seriously threatens the Earth because it harms the environment and its living beings in many ways. Plastic does not biodegrade but breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics that cause health problems. Plastic waste can clog waterways, choke marine life, entangle wildlife, plastic production and disposal contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, and resource depletion. Plastic pollution can alter habitats and natural processes, reducing ecosystems’ ability to adapt to climate change and affecting millions of people’s livelihoods, food production, and well-being. It is very sad to say that only we humans make waste like plastic that nature can’t digest! We keep harming nature and natural processes knowing fully well that the planet has its limits. Twelve countries are responsible for 60 per cent of the world’s mismanaged plastic waste:  India is one of them. Though India is a “low-waste-producing” polluter due to its low per capita plastic waste production (8 kg per capita per year), it is said the country’s expected mismanaged waste in 2024 will be 7.4 million tons, which is “very high”. Still, India’s mismanaged plastic waste will be less than one-fifth of China and one-third of the US. India is estimated to release an average of 3,91,879 tons of microplastics into the environment and 31,483 tons of chemical additives into waterways. God save our rivers that we worship and hold in such high regard! While we need to reduce plastic use, managing huge amounts of plastic waste is a major issue. Much of this waste is not collected, managed, recycled or put to other use. In the New Delhi G20 Leaders’ Declaration, the countries noted that they are determined to end plastic pollution. They welcomed a UN resolution which established an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument in plastic pollution. This instrument will also focus on plastic pollution in the marine environment and aim to complete its work by the end of 2024. The leaders also pledged to build on the G20 Marine Litter Action Plan. I must say that the plastic pollution free world is no longer just a choice but a commitment to life – a commitment to the next generation. It is just not right for humans to manufacture billions of objects that are used for a matter of minutes, and then they remain thrown, discarded and useless with us for centuries. Our planet is crying out loud and demanding that, if a product can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, resold, recycled, or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production. Who is putting up his or her hand to stop the production of one time used plastic bags? Who is ready to defeat plastic and stand with planet earth in this war?

The plastic pollution problem does not start in the middle of the ocean, in fact it does not even start on our shores or in our rivers. It starts on land and in our factories. So, the solutions should also be found on land and in our factories. The imbalance between corporate interests and public welfare is a huge and omnipresent concern that feels like it has a David and Goliath size imbalance. As plastic production is set to double by 2040, it’s one concern we cannot back away from. The fight, Planet versus Plastics, has only just begun — it’s a fight the planet cannot afford to lose, because the health of our children depends on it. Undoubtedly now we must vow on this Earth Day to defeat the evil plastic and make our planet win this war! Sure, our ancestors must be smiling from above.

(Roli S is an Educator and Author based in Thane)