The plastic problem, and some solutions

There is a strong link between plastic and poverty: Heather Koldewey

Seized of the growing menace of plastic, specially the single-use one, the ongoing World Environment Day 2018 celebrations being hosted by Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in the Capital, started off with the theme “Beat The Plastic”. One of the key speakers on the first day was Heather Koldewey, Head of Marine and Freshwater at Zoological Society of London who talked about marine litter and integrated coastal zone management.

Heather, who is also a National Geographic explorer, has done pioneering work in community-based marine conservation and developed Net-Works, a multi-award winning project that has developed a supply chain for discarded fishing nets that are recycled into carpet tiles.


Many see plastic as a necessary evil, what is your take?

I will not refer to plastic as a necessary evil. Plastic is an amazing material that can be turned into varied forms. It has obviously transformed our transport system, health and the way we live. However, half of the plastic produced annually is single use and that is where the key problem lies. Plastic is going to last for hundreds of years yet our use of the single one lasts only for a few seconds, or few minutes or a few hours. When we term it as evil, it is more or less meant for the single use plastic.

The focus of the National Geographic’s initiative “Planet or Plastic” is how do we reduce single use plastic because its quantum is so huge. NG is leading by example and eliminating plastic cover for its India, UK and US editions.

What is the fall out of plastic waste?

Plastic persists in the environment for a long time unless it is burnt. So each piece continues to exist somewhere in the planet. As a marine biologist, I am concerned about the sizeable portion ending up in the oceans. It is equivalent of a garbage truck dumping plastic every minute into the ocean. Our priority is to stop that. The consequences of this is most visible in animals and creatures who get entangled in plastic causing their death or eating it and becoming sick. In many species of sea birds, almost 100 per cent in some, there is some kind of plastic in their stomach.

With plastic breaking down into smaller bits, we now find it across the food chain. In the smallest plankton, living in the ocean, right up to the largest of whales. It is in the form of micro plastic and even nano plastic. Planktons are eaten by small fish who in turn are food for bigger ones and many of them end on our plate. Additionally, plastic is treated with a lot of chemicals to give them desired properties, which are very harmful.

What is the way out?

There is a strong link between plastic and poverty. Take the case of sachet (single use). For poor communities, it is a way of accessing a number of products like soap, shampoo, toothpaste, etc. So there is obviously differences in the luxury of choice between different sections of society and socio economic groups. Where they have a choice is of not using plastic straws, straw is actually used by a few, single use plastic bags and plastic bottles. Likewise cans which are highly recyclable and glass bottles are good alternatives.

In India, traditionally tea and beverages were served in kulhad or clay cups that is degradable. It can be served in cups which may require washing. This is where the costs come into play and incentives need to be provided to people moving away from plastic cups.

More thought ought to be given to product design when choosing between circular and linear economy. At present products are designed without any thought about what happens to them at the end of life. Businesses have to start thinking about designing products for reuse and recycling. A plastic bottle dyed purple may be great marketing strategy but is difficult to recycle whereas clear and white one is not.

I am working in a community-based project in Philippines and Cameroon in which old and discarded fishing nets are used to make carpet tiles. We have collected enough nets to go around the world four times just from this small project. These nets are usually abandoned at the end of their product life landing up in beaches or oceans.

What about the plastic waste that is already in the oceans?

It is very difficult to get plastic waste already in oceans. However, what can be done is to retrieve them through activities like beach cleaning around the world. There have been legendary cases, like in India, where Afroz Shah, a lawyer, headed what is biggest beach clean-up at Versova, Mumbai. Other initiatives could be to provide incentives to fishing boats to pick up litter in the ocean when they fish that can be handed over at shore for recycling or proper disposal.

Plogging is also emerging as an option...

Plogging is interesting as it has generated lot of traction, politically, socially and economically. Every piece of plastic that is captured does not impact our environment, is a good thing. Plogging makes people aware of what they are buying, the choices they make and how it impacts the environment. This could influence consumer behaviour thereby putting pressure on business to change.

How do you see dumping of waste in landfills?

Landfill is a current solution to deal with the waste but is definitely a poor one. Many of materials going into it are of high value and in short supply. We need to understand that earth’s resources are finite. There is a sensible business case to look at how we can reuse materials. Plastic in landfill breaks down but is bound to affect the soil and water.

As an experienced marine conservator, how do you view balancing of environment protection and employment?

The pressure is to find a sustainable solution to protect the rich diversity of marine life and recognising that many people depend on it for livelihood and food. Healthy environment always means more employment. Take fishing for example. Declining fish stocks is not good for anybody, be it human beings or other species. One needs combination of good fisheries management and marine protection allowing access to local people to fish sustainably in their place while ensuring it is not depleted by commercial fisheries.

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 12:55:36 PM |

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