Look at solutions that can make this planet plastic-free: CSE

Humankind had thought that it had found a way to deal with plastic waste. But now, that plastic is entering into our bodies through our food. The cycle has closed – SunitaNarain 

New Delhi,June 4/5, 2018:“The 2018 World Environment Day has brought the plastic menace back on the global agenda – though for us, it has always been there,” said Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), on the eve of June 5, thereby bringing to the fore an issue that has gripped the world’s attention lately. 

According to a study by the University of California and Santa Barbara and others, the world has produced about 8.3 billion metric tonnes (bmt) of plastic from 1950 to 2015. Of this, 6.3 bmt or 76 per cent is plastic waste. 

Of this 6.3 bmt of plastic waste generated, only 9 per cent is recycled. Of this 9 per cent, only 10 per cent has been recycled more than once; 12 per cent of the waste is incinerated. “The rest, as much as 79 per cent, is in landfills or in the environment – in our oceans and waterbodies,” says Narain. 

She adds: “Plastic is back on the global agendaafter some 30 years or so. It was in the 1970s that the now developed world had struggled with its massive waste problem, and had managed to clean up its litter. But plastic never went away – it has remained. In fact, its use has increased. It is today perhaps the most ubiquitous and necessary material that humankind has created. The biggest increase in the use of plastic has come in the packaging industry—from water bottles to plastic layers in tea bags to plastic straws, glasses, plates and just about all that we package for our consumption. But we also wear it; we sleep on it; we build our homes with it and we pipe our water and oil in it.”  

Narain points out that plastic use is not an issue: “As long as people did not use carry-bags to do shopping, and as long as they segregated waste, it was ok. We could use and somebody would recycle. Or it would be taken to an incinerator and burnt. Or taken away to be put in a landfill. All in all, it was handled.” 
But now the balloon has burst, she adds:“The first shock has come from studies that show that plastic generated on land is filling up and polluting our oceans. And that fish is eating this plastic and we are then eating the same fish. Micro-plastics have been found in tap water and even in the air we breathe. So, the cycle has closed. Plastic that we used; even segregated and then somebody took away for recycling has come back into our bodies.”

What happens to this plastic then?
There arethree options, says CSE. The first is recycling it into secondary material.However, mostly, this ‘secondary’ material is of lower quality or economical value. Hence, it fails to displace the primary product.

The second option is to destroy plastic products by burning them in incinerators. This has been a highly controversial method because of the emissions released through this process. To cap these emissions, expensive pollution control contraptions will be needed.

The third option that the world has been exercising at large is dumping the waste elsewhere.

Rather than ‘managing’ plastic waste, we need to look at solutions that can actually make the planet plastic-free.Narain says that one such solution could be the ‘deposit scheme’ that has been started in several countries. People are required to pay a small cash amount for plastic goods like water bottles which is reimbursed when they return the used items.
Or there is the extended producer responsibility scheme where producers have to take back a proportion of the materials they generate. However, here, the question is what happens to the collected waste?

“Surely, we need more drastic solutions. In Hinduism, the God of destruction – Shiva – is more important than the God of creation – Vishnu. Maybe the next time we celebrate an invention that is so convenient because it is so indestructible, we should remember this. Or else, the only sign of the human civilization will be the existence of plastic on this planet,” adds SunitaNarain.

For interviews and other assistance, please contact: ParulTewari, The CSE Media Resource Centre, / 9891838367.