Ecologic Environment

We must give up our addiction to plastic if we want to save our ecosystems

Our penchant for littering is alarming.   | Photo Credit: M. Govarthan

Some 20 years ago, an obscure Danish dance music group rode to international fame on a blockbuster single called ‘Barbie Girl’. People started dancing to a refrain that went something like this: ‘I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world / Life in plastic, it’s fantastic.’ At that time, nobody, not Barbie, not Aqua, not the people who shook a leg, cared that it’s not. Today, we have realised at great cost that life in plastic is not fantastic, not at all.

‘Barbie Girl’ was a paean to the doll that was not just a doll. Barbie was a way of life, a lifestyle filled with fashion, accessories and boyfriend, in a world where even the colours were plastic. Her conquest of the West coincided with a start of a remarkable age of plastic. In the 1950s, just before Barbie entered American homes, Paul Hogan and Robert Banks, two chemists working for Phillips Petroleum Company, synthesised solid polymers from fossil fuels that could be so conveniently shaped into anything, and were, most importantly, incredibly cheap.

In a few quick years, the rich nations of the western world succumbed to a frenzy of plastic convenience. Every conceivable material and stuff that made up daily lives was made of plastic or came wrapped in it. To cite just one instance, plastic packaging replaced glass milk bottles before you could say snap. Today, Americans alone use four million plastic bottles every hour.

When the rest of the world, particularly India and China, stepped on the growth pedal, the use of plastic rose exponentially. In 1950, annual plastic production was less than half a million tonnes. By 2002, when India and China were well into their high growth trajectory, production reached 200 million tonnes a year! To people dancing to the plastic life of Barbie, it seemed the party will never end.

For everybody married to convenience and corporations laughing all the way to banks, plastic carried the promise of paradise. Though it was practically indestructible, most of the plastic was use and throw. Disposed without a thought, enormous amounts of plastic kept piling up in landfills.

Polymer planet

The dumping has not slowed down and the effects are now showing up in the unlikeliest of places. In 2016, 335 million tonnes of plastic were synthesised, most of which has been disposed of within days, if not hours. Some 80 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since 1950, of which about 60% has been discarded and a meagre 9% recycled. We are well into our way to being a polymer planet.

The problem of course is that discarded plastic is no longer contained within rubbish dumps. The natural environment has become infested with it, from high mountains to high seas. For anyone vacationing in the hills, heaps of plastic waste is an all too common eyesore. Oceans and rivers too have not escaped. In 1988, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States announced the existence of an enormous patch of debris floating on the Pacific Ocean made up mostly of plastic, an island made of trash.

Most worryingly, when exposed to salt water and sunlight, plastics fragment into tiny little pieces called microplastics that find their way into fishes and other aquatic life, entering the food chain of which humans are also a part. Added to this are microbeads, tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic that are added to health and beauty products such as cleansers and toothpaste. Scientists are yet to measure the effects of plastics on human health, but it’s unlikely to be anything good.

The world has woken up late to the plastics problems and there are now calls for banning the rampant use of polymer products and to stop the use of single-use plastic.

Too little, too late

In India, there have been well-meaning efforts to ban plastic bags as well, but results have been disappointing. Urging people to use less of plastic is rather futile in a situation where more of the stuff is being produced, used and consumed. In less than a generation, city dwellers in India have gone from using glass bottles to poly packs for milk. There are thousands of other examples.

India is producing some 5.5 million tonnes of plastic every year, and with our penchant for littering, most of it is finding its way into the natural environment. A 2015 study conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board found that plastic waste has become a serious problem in as many as 60 cities across the country. These cities are generating 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste everyday, the pollution watchdog found.

Since plastics are not biodegradable, is there a way to deal with these mountains of waste? Scientists have discovered bacteria that love eating plastic. Soon we might have a microscopic horde gobbling up the mess we have made. Till then, every time you brush your teeth or eat or enjoy a drink, you’ll be putting some plastic in your belly. Wonder what Barbie would’ve thought of that.

The writer is Managing Editor of @scurve

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 6:45:23 AM |

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