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Weekly Current Affairs: April week-2 - Massive plastic pollution footprint

  • Category
    Environment
  • Published
    9th Apr, 2020

Four global drinks giants are responsible for more than half a million tonnes of plastic pollution in six developing countries each year, according to a report by NGO Tearfund.

Context

Four global drinks giants are responsible for more than half a million tonnes of plastic pollution in six developing countries each year, according to a report by NGO Tearfund.

Background:

  • The NGO Tearfundhas calculated the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the open burning of plastic bottles, sachets and cartons produced by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Unilever in developing nations, where waste can be mismanaged because people do not have access to collections.
  • Taking a sample of six developing countries, reflecting a spread across the globe, the NGO estimated the burning of plastic packaging put on to the market by the companies creates 4.6m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – equivalent to the emissions from 2m cars.
  • Tearfund analysed the plastic put on the market in China, India, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria by the four companies to examine the impact of single use plastic in developing countries.
  • The countries were chosen because they are large developing country markets, spread across three continents.

Analysis

What is plastic?

  • The word plastic comes from the Greek “Plastikos” meaning “capable of being shaped or molded”. Chemically speaking, plastic is a polymer or a long, long chain of monomers.
  • Monomer is derived from Greek word “Mono” meaning one and “Meros” meaning part. Polymer is derived from Greek word “Poly” meaning many.
  • In nature, polymers exist everywhere. But it is also possible to create them from crude oil or petroleum.
  • These are known as synthetic polymers and plastic is one of them. Synthetic polymers have extraordinary traits. They are lightweight, durable and can be given any colour and molded into almost any shape.
  • Today, almost everything is at least partly made from plastic. The question is if plastic is that essential to our life then why the hue and cry about its use.

What makes plastic non-biodegradable?

  • The atomic structure of plastic or the monomer is essentially made up of carbon and hydrogen that has a strong bond and is hard to break.
  • Neither carbon nor hydrogen as elements individually causes problem, but it is the bond, making plastic non-biodegradable and causing plastic pollution.
  • It is similar to how carbon and oxygen individually does not cause any problem, but when they come together to form carbon dioxide (CO2), it causes a lot of problems.
  • We know that plants have an extraordinary and unique ability to break down the bond between the carbon and oxygen atoms in carbon dioxide, the natural way to get rid of excess carbon dioxide in the air.
  • But unfortunately, no plant/animal/bacteria exists has the ability to break down the bonds between carbon and hydrogen atoms of the monomer of plastic.
  • This makes plastic not only non-biodegradable but virtually indestructible. Moreover, in exposure to ultra violet rays of sunlight, plastic breaks down into very small pieces known as micro plastics.
  • Because of its miniscule size, in the coming days, micro plastics are going to be the biggest challenge for life on Earth.

Key-highlights of the Report:

  • The study analysed the plastic put on the market in China, India, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria by the four companies to examine the impact of single use plastic in developing countries.
  • The countries were chosen because they are large developing country markets, spread across three continents.
  • The sachets, bottles, and cartons sold in these countries often end up either being burned or dumped – creating a pollution problem equivalent to covering 83 football pitches with plastic to 10 centimetres deep each day.
  • This massive plastic pollution footprint, while a crisis in and of itself, is also contributing to the climate crisis.
  • The four companies make little or no mention of emissions from disposal of their products or packaging in their climate change commitments.
  • These companies continue to sell billions of products in single-use bottles, sachets and packets in developing countries.
  • The research found that emissions produced from the open burning of Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever’s plastic packaging on street corners, open dumps and in backyards in developing countries was a major contribution to the climate emergency.
    • Coca-Cola creates the biggest plastic pollution footprint in the six countries. The drinks giant creates 200,000 tonnes of plastic waste – or about 8bn bottles – which is burned or dumped each year in the six countries: enough to cover 33 football pitches every day.
    • PepsiCo creates 137,000 tonnes of plastic pollution per year – equivalent to covering 22 football pitches a day.
    • Nestléleaves a pollution footprint of 95,000 tonnes per year or covering 15 football pitches a day.
    • Unilever’s pollution footprint amounts to 70,000 tonnes per year – covering more than 11 football pitches a day.

 Why plastic is a threat?

  • Adding toxics to atmosphere: The used plastic is unsuitable for recycling and is burnt, which further releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. 
  • Contamination: In case, the plastic is not burnt, it ends up in a landfill, potentially contaminating soil, land and water sources.
  • Adding threats to marine life: Plastic bags threats marine life such as fishes, turtles which unknowingly consume plastic that is dumped into the water bodies. Ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. 
  • Uncollected waste: Since there is no adequate capacity of recycling of plastic waste, a huge quantity of plastic waste remains uncollected causing substantial damage to soil and water bodies.

What needs to be done?

Tearfund is calling on the companies to dramatically reduce the production and sale of single-use plastic packaging and switch to refillable and reusable models. The NGO is demanding the companies:

  • Report the number of units of single-use plastic products they use and sell in each country by the end of this year.
  • Reduce this amount by half, country by country, by 2025, and instead use environmentally sustainable delivery methods such as refillable or reusable containers.
  • Recycle the single-use plastics they sell in developing countries, ensuring that by 2022 one is collected for every one sold.
  • Restore dignity through working in partnership with waste pickers to create safe jobs.

Conclusion:

In the given situation, the government needs to focus on research programmes to quantify the link between climate change and the burning and dumping of plastic from multinational companies in developing countries. The companies need to understand their responsibility and should switch refillable and reusable alternatives instead of single-use plastic.

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