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An 8.3-bn tonne problem: How to manage plastic waste 

The Economic Times , Jun 02, 2018

There is a bit of plastic everywhere, in our wallets, on our dining tables and kitchens, in our cars and buses and in our phones and offices. It is nearly impossible to imagine a world without plastics. From its beginning in 1950, global plastic production has increased dramatically from 2 million tonnes to 380 million tonnes in 2015. Its sheer convenience -- lightweight and durable – has made this man-made material ubiquitous in every sphere of human existence. In the last 70 years, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced.

We almost always take the suffocation warning on plastic bags and packages seriously, keeping plastic packaging out of reach of babies and children. But we have not been as mindful with the planet. Of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced, 6.3 billion tonnes have been discarded. Every year, nearly 13 million tonnes of plastic waste are added to oceans. Given their durability, plastics do not decompose.

“A plastic bottle takes between 450-1000 years to decompose,” explained Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan.

Much of the growth in plastic production is driven by single use or disposable applications. Nearly 50 % of plastics used are single use products such as bottles, plastic bags, packaging, straws, stirrers, spoons and forks. Around the world, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute. Every year we use up to 5 trillion disposable plastic bags.

“We enjoy the convenience of plastic bags but must also take note of the havoc it causes to the environment. The destruction of ocean ecosystems, threat to lives of cattle and pollution of public spaces must be stopped,” says Anirban Ghosh, chief sustainability officer, Mahindra Group.

In India, 80 % of total plastic consumption is discarded as waste and official statistics say the country generates 25, 940 tonnes of plastic waste daily. At least 40% of this waste is uncollected.

“The use of plastic in packaging both as rigid and flexible forms has been increasing and a matter concern in India as, many times, the packaging is not effectively collected, ending up in landfills and drains in the cities,” said Suneel Pandey, who heads the environment and waste management division of New Delhi based think tank, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).

Plastic bottles, jars, and containers, also known as rigid packaging, find their way into the reusing and recycling economy through informal chain of rag pickers and kabaadi wallahs or scrap dealers. There is a concerted effort to increase recycling of rigid plastic packaging by companies as well. But other single use plastics such as bags, candy wrappers, tobacco and pan masala sachets, soap wrappers and shampoo sachets are either too difficult or not lucrative enough to collect. These plastic items then find their way into landfills, unauthorised garbage dumps, or simply remain uncollected on road kerbs.

Eventually, these single-use plastic items clog rivers, other water bodies and the ocean. They are consumed by animals, and often find their way into our food systems.

In February this year, veterinarians operating on a bloated and infected six-year old cow brought into the Bihar Veterinary College in Patna removed 80 kilogrammes of plastic from its stomach. Though this was not the first time that doctors had removed polythene from an animal’s stomach, 80 kilogrammes of it from a single animal was something of a record.

The Indian plastic industry is among the fastest growing ones. According to a 2017 knowledge paper by FICCI, a business and industry lobby, Indian plastic processing industry saw compounded annual growth rate of 10% between 2010 and 2015. Annual plastic consumption is expected to increase from 12 million tonnes to 20 million tonnes by 2020.

Given the projected increase in consumption, TERI’s Pandey stresses considering the possibility of introducing changes at the product design stages that facilitate easy collection, sorting and subsequent recycling. Increased consumption means use of plastics for packaging, Pandey says “ideally, packaging should be designed to use the minimum amount of resources for purpose and once it has completed its job, the scope for recovery maximised”.

There has been an effort to encourage the alternative uses for plastic waste. The use of 10 to 15 % of plastics in road construction is one such use. Recycling, reuse, or alternative use of plastic waste can help reduce the amount of virgin plastic produced.

However, this is not enough to address the planet’s plastic pollution problem. That would require a drastic reduction of the use of singleuse plastic products.

 

 

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