Plastics conundrum
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They quietly seeped into our lives and we can’t think of a life without them

September 25, 2022 01:26 am | Updated 01:26 am IST

The durability and convenience that plastics offer have proved to be a Faustian bargain in the long run.

The durability and convenience that plastics offer have proved to be a Faustian bargain in the long run. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The new ban on ‘single use plastic’ is on. The government has defined ‘single-use’ plastic as something that is used once and then disposed of or recycled.

The government has listed 21 items that need to be phased out and they include plates made of plastic, cups made of plastic, earbuds with plastic sticks, glasses made of plastic; wrapping or packaging films around sweet boxes and cigarette packets among others.

Going through the extensive list made me sit up and wonder as to how plastics have quietly seeped into our lives and become so entrenched that we can’t think of a life without them.

The durability and convenience that plastics offer have proved to be a Faustian bargain in the long run. Once we discard plastic items, they are not biodegradable and usually go to a landfill where they are buried or eventually get into water and find their way to the ocean. They later break down into tiny particles and release toxic chemicals. These chemicals enter our food and water supply and are found in our bloodstream, leading to various ailments, including cancer, infertility, birth defects and impaired immunity.

I was lucky enough to have a glimpse of what a pre-plastic or a less-plastic era looked like. We had to carry a glass bottle or steel container while going to buy milk, a cloth bag was integral to shopping at grocery and vegetable stores, and every shop stocked old newspaper to wrap and pack the goods.

Some shopkeepers used little packets made out of newspapers, while others used the newspaper sheets to wrap the commodities which were bundled with a thread of cotton or jute. The speed and adeptness with which those veteran shopkeepers used to wrap up and tie half a kilo of dal or sugar in paper was wonderful to watch.

Back then, there were hardly any supermarkets and friendly neighourhood kirana stores were the mainstay, even in metro cities. They were basic sub-1,000 square feet stores with gunny bags of rice, wheat, sugar, and various pulses occupying most of the floor space, while bottles of health drinks (such as Horlicks or Bournvita), soap, toothpaste and other toiletries and detergents were laid out in shelves.

The storefront cupboard with a glass display was reserved for chocolates and biscuits, while toffees and dried fruits were stored in largish cookie jars made of glass. This was how the kirana stores from Kashmir to Kanyakumari looked, with only minor variations.

At vegetable shops, there were tokris (baskets made out of bamboo) to keep different vegetables. At meat and fish shops, the mutton or chicken was wrapped in paper and people brought cloth bags to carry their purchase home. Hospitals, clinics and medical stores doled out syrups and tonics in glass bottles.

Soft drinks such as Fanta and Coke in their earlier avatar came in glass bottles; tea/coffee in hotels was served in glasses or steel tumblers. In places such as Agra and some neighbouring towns, we had teashops serving tea in kulhads or clay containers.

Plastic was confined to few items such as toothbrushes, pens, face-cream boxes, lunch boxes and water bottles for schoolchildren, educational stationery such as rulers, protractors and set squares.

Later, milk cooperatives adopted plastic, as it offered a hassle-free milk delivery. Customers too readily accepted it as bottles or containers were no longer required.

The introduction of polyethylene terephthalate containers or PET bottles and the concept of bottled mineral water dealt a body blow to the glass bottle industry. Colas, cough syrups, liquor, shampoo… all that were hitherto packaged in glass bottles began getting replaced by PET bottles, as they were unbreakable.

Plastic cups began making their presence felt at railway stations. The areas near the railway tracks bore the brunt as passengers threw discarded cups out of the window. Soon all tea shops started using plastic cups to do away with washing of glasses and tumblers.

Then came the plastic bags, which just turned the whole packaging industry on its head. The first to go were the paper bags and newspaper sheets as shopkeepers found plastic carry bags to be more convenient to use — no time-consuming wrapping was required. Customers too were drawn to this novelty as it gave them the freedom from bringing along cloth bags.

The devastating effects of these plastic bags began to set in. They were found discarded in trash cans and by the wayside. As they were light-weight, they got easily blown away by wind and soon became ubiquitous — and were consumed by cattle.

For garbage managers, single-use plastic became a major headache and soon municipal landfills were overwhelmed by plastic bags. Municipalities have tried various methods, including waste segregation, ban on use of plastic bags and crackdown on stores violating these norms, but these bags of 40-50 micron thickness continue to pose major problems to the environment and health.

shajilkumark@gmail.com

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