Gist of Rajya Sabha TV : Dealing with single-use plastic

Introduction

Single-use plastic is a major cause of concern for the world today. India has taken several initiatives to tackle the problem caused by single use plastic and management of plastic waste. Recently Vice President of India, in one of his addresses has spoken about the need to go ahead and influence the human behavior as far as tackling the menace of single-use plastic. He says the focus has to be on bringing those behavioral changes in dealing with the problem of plastic pollution. In this episode, we will discuss and analyze the challenges and solutions for this problem.

Edited Excerpts from the debate

How big is the problem of single-use plastic?

  • Plastic is an enormous problem. Plastic is designed to last forever. Plastic may be derived from natural materials, but in the process, molecular structures are changed, chemicals are added, and become too strong and durable for the planet to digest.
  • There is no bacteria or enzyme that effectively eats plastic and closes the natural cycle, which means it just keeps piling up
  • Every second, 15,000 plastic bottles are sold worldwide. That is 1,000,000 per minute and 480 billion a year. 
  • The global recycling system is estimated to be a $200 billion industry. About 95% of plastic has never been recycled. A whopping 91 percent of all plastic is not recycled at all. Instead, it ends up in landfills or in the environment.
  • Single-use plastics in particular—especially small items like straws, bags, and cutlery—are traditionally hard to recycle because they fall into the crevices of recycling machinery and therefore are often not accepted by recycling centers.

Why single plastic is harmful?

  • Non-biodegradable: According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), plastic is harmful to the environment as it is non-biodegradable, takes years to disintegrate.
  • Microplastics: Single-use plastics slowly and gradually break down into smaller pieces of plastic known as microplastics. Microplastics are mostly 10 microns in size (0.01mm).
  • Contamination of soil and water: It can take thousands of years for plastic bags to decompose, thus contaminating our soil and water in the process.
  • Contamination of food chain: The noxious chemicals used to produce plastic gets transmitted to animal tissue, and finally, enter the human food chain, the WWF claims.
  • Wildlife: Plastic has a big impact on wildlife too.
    • Birds usually confuse shreds of plastic bags for food and end up eating the toxic debris.
    • Fish consume thousands of tons of plastic in a year, ultimately transferring it up the food chain to marine mammals.
  • Plastic kills an estimated 1 million sea birds every year and affects around 700 species that get infected by ingesting plastics.
  • Human health: These toxic chemicals are now being found in our bloodstream and the latest research has found them to disrupt the Endocrine system which can cause cancer, infertility, birth defects, impaired immunity, and many other ailments.
    • In Rome, it has been found that microplastics have even found in the human placenta of unborn babies.
      • Though the health impact of microplastics in the body is as yet unknown.
      • But the scientists said they could carry chemicals that could cause long-term damage or upset the fetus’s developing immune system.
      • The particles are likely to have been consumed or breathed in by the mothers.

The other side of the coin

Why plastic is important?

  • Construction: Plastics enable sustainable, durable, long-lasting design and construction in homes, buildings, and infrastructure like bridges.
  • Automotive: In automotive design, plastics have contributed to a multitude of innovations in safety, performance, and fuel efficiency.
  • Safe and sustainable packaging: Plastic packaging helps protect and preserve goods while reducing weight in transportation, which saves fuel and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Electronics: computers and cell phones to televisions and microwaves, durable, lightweight, and affordable plastics have helped revolutionize electronics.

How to deal with this problem?

  • Reducing the number: Reducing plastic use is the most effective means of avoiding this waste (and the impacts linked to plastic production and use).
  • Reusable alternatives: There is an urgent need to re-engineer alternative solutions in the packaging industry. Carrying reusable bags and bottles is one great way to avoid single-use plastics in day-to-day lives.
  • Recycling: Recycling more plastic, more frequently, reduces its footprint.
  • More awareness: Raising awareness about plastic pollution and encouraging widespread action.
  • Innovation: Also crucial in this effort will be the development of innovative designs and technologies that can offer practical alternatives to existing products.
  • Research and Development

Conclusion

Rather than a sudden blanket ban, phasing out single-use plastic according to whether these are high priority items that need to be replaced immediately and for which alternatives are available, and those that require more time to be phased out. Industry should also be pushed to work on R&D to work on packaging alternatives and to phase out different types of plastic.

Otherwise, humans need to get ready to live in a world where plastic will be present in food, water and even bodies.

Value Addition

What is single-use plastic?

  • Single-use plastics are disposable plastics meant for use-and-throw.
  • These comprise polythene bags, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic sachets, plastic wrappers, straws, stirrers and Styrofoam cups or plates.

Science for plastic

  • Plastics are a group of materials, either synthetic or naturally occurring, that may be shaped when soft and then hardened to retain the given shape.
  • Plastics are polymers. A polymer is a substance made of many repeating units.
  • A polymer can be thought of as a chain in which each link is the “mer,” or monomer (single unit).
  • The chain is made by joining, or polymerizing, at least 1,000 links together.
  • Polymerization can be demonstrated by making a chain using paper clips or by linking many strips of paper together to form a paper garland.

Characteristics of Polymers

    • They are resistant to chemicals.
    • They are insulators of heat and electricity.
    • They are light in mass and have varying degrees of strength.
    • They can be processed in various ways to produce fibers, sheets, foams, or intricate molded parts.

The numbers

  • According to Un-Plastic Collective Report, an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s, about 60% of which has ended up either in a landfill or the natural environment.
  • India alone generates 9.46 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, around 43% of which comprises single-use plastic.
    • The percentage is subsisting 13 lakh workers, generating 53,000 crores of revenues for companies which are using plastics.
  • It poses a mammoth problem for India since 40% of plastic waste remains uncollected.

The national aim

  • India aims to eliminate single-use plastic by 2022. 

Government effort to deal with plastic

  • Indian Railways and Air India banned the use of single-use plastic, which cannot be recycled.

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