The Plastic Waste Challenge – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

Once, plastic was considered a miracle material, as its synthetic polymers give it astonishing durability. As per the World Economic Forum (WEF), the use of plastic has increased twenty-fold over the last fifty years. But plastic also poses a massive environmental challenge.

Plastic waste is everywhere today. It is filling up our oceans and destroying marine life and even invading our food chain to get into our bodies. Our per capita use of plastics is growing – and as we become richer, we will end up generating more plastic waste.

Worryingly, plastics are now traveling through water, sediments, and air back to their point of origin — us.

Hence, plastic waste is a global problem that needs immediate redressal.

What is the scale of the problem?

Currently, 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced annually. But, as the UN finds, only 9% of all plastic waste has ever been recycled, the rest — over 6.3 billion tonnes — is buried or cast off into nature, leaching into rivers carrying this to the seas.

As per the World Bank, 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the seas each year and by 2050, the world’s oceans could contain more plastic than fish.

Already, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of debris the size of Texas, has created a lifeless zone in the Pacific. Microplastics have polluted coral atolls, mighty peaks, Arctic snows, and the soil beneath our feet.

India:

A Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report (2018-19) puts the total annual plastic waste generation in India at 3.3 million metric tonnes.

India’s per capita plastic consumption of less than 11 kg, is nearly a tenth of the United States of America (109 kg).

The scale of environmental plastic contamination is global now. Plastics are found in the air, rain, soil, plants, and animals, and in the human food chain.

What are the negative implications of plastic?

i). Global warming: Plastic, which degrades over centuries, is derived from fossil fuels. Further, the refinement of plastics emits an additional 184 to 213 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, increasing global warming.

ii). Threat to species: Plastic threatens over 700 species, disrupting nature’s ecosystem benefits. UNEP estimates the natural capital cost of plastic use at $75 billion annually.

iii). Ingestion of chemicals: Scientists have found that certain chemicals from plastics make their way into the food and water humans consume, estimating we could be ingesting over 50,000 microplastic particles a year. Many of these ingredient chemicals can disrupt human health. Some can be oestrogenic, while some are carcinogens. Further, there are nearly 4,000 different chemicals involved in plastics.

iv). Microplastics: Over time, plastic items in the marine environment can degrade or break down into smaller pieces, predominantly through weathering and mechanical forces such as wave action and abrasion with sand. Once a plastic item is between 5 mm and 1μm, it is defined as microplastic (MP). Due to their size, MPs are easily ingested by an extensive range of marine species from high to low trophic species and can cause negative effects on organisms

Why Plastic use is so much prevalent?

i). Plastics were also introduced into the food sector because they have a preservation effect, resulting in less food waste

ii).  They can be used at a very wide range of temperatures, are chemical- and light-resistant.

iii). Plastic is inexpensive. Due to its lightweight, plastic reduces shipping and transportation costs. It saves both in the cost to get products to consumers and in the cost to get post-consumer materials to recycling centers.

Regulations for plastic waste in India

There is currently no dedicated international instrument in place designed specifically to prevent plastic pollution throughout the entire plastics lifecycle.

As far as India is concerned, it got its first plastic-waste management law in 1999. Its aim was to restrict the use of plastic carry bags (thickness 20 µm or less) and prevent food from being packaged in recycled plastic.

The government amended these rules in 2003 to dilute the restriction on carry bags but mandating registration of manufacturing units with regional pollution control authorities.

Recognising the mounting plastic crisis, the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling Rules) 2011 were eventually notified. For the first time, there was a national law proposing a ban on the use of plastic materials in sachets to store, pack or sell gutkha, tobacco, and pan masala. But like its predecessor, the 2011 notification remained a paper tiger.

In 2016, the Union environment ministry announced the Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules. These included many progressive propositions, like ‘polluter pays’ and ‘extended producer responsibility’.

In 2021, MoEFCC notified the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021. The rules aim to prohibit the use of specific single-use plastic items, which have “low utility and high littering potential” by 2022.

Must ReadPlastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021
What are the solutions to the plastic problem?

i). Recycling is the most effective way to reduce plastic discards. Importantly, with billions lacking recycling services, a Pew Centre study finds closing the collection gap means connecting 5,00,000 people a day up to 2040  the livelihoods prospects are enormous.

ii). Scientists are working on biodegradable plastics. These plastics can be decomposed by the action of living organisms, usually microbes, into the water, carbon dioxide, and biomass.

iii). Green intelligence: We need to build fundamental knowledge about the environmental fate and effects of different kinds of technologies – termed as Green intelligence. People should think about the products and chemicals they bring to their everyday environments and their own selves. This entails a different way of thinking, of planning rationally to reduce harmful exposures.

iv). Transparency: Industries using plastics should be much more transparent about what’s in the products they make. The absence of information makes it very difficult for consumers to protect the environment or themselves.

v). We need an independent body responsible for testing the safety of the chemicals used in plastics.

vi). Industries should take producer responsibility for plastic products at the end of their life cycles.

vii). We need a body of consumers making the effort to become more knowledgeable about plastic products and more thoughtful about the implications of our daily purchases.

viii). Limit usage: People should try to reduce consuming food and beverages stored in plastic. Limit using plastics in heating food items and reduce the use of children’s toys made of vinyl plastic because a small child could put this in their mouth and the chemicals may leach out, leading to exposure.

Way forward

The responsibility falls on the shoulders of the governments to adopt a comprehensive strategy that can prevent the excessive generation of disposable plastics and then ascertain techniques to sustainably manage the end-of-life of their products.

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