A way to live with the demon

Plastic is here to stay. We have to find ways to use it smartly

By Mahazareen Dastur
Published: Thursday 15 March 2012

Mahazareen DasturI have often wondered whether I am doing the right thing by using anything that looks like plastic or buying anything remotely associated with it. Let’s think about it: the packaged lentils we buy, the nylon and polyester we wear, the Amul milk the kids have every morning, the books I order from www.flipkart.com (they come shrink-wrapped in cling film), toys, PVC piping, and an endless list of consumer paraphernalia that comes wrapped in plastic. I must confess that while the answer is still not clear in my mind, I am swaying towards the “plastic ain’t that bad” argument. Before I get mobbed, let me explain.

About.com’s page on inventors states: “The first man-made plastic was created by Alexander Parkes who publicly demonstrated it at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. The material called Parkesine was an organic material derived from cellulose that once heated could be molded, and retained its shape when cooled.” Like many inventions that changed the way we live, this one too was an accident. Apparently, his interest in plastic stemmed from wanting to make billiard balls out of it. R&D related to the creation of white chalkboards gave rise to yet another kind of plastic (this one used milk protein mixed with formaldehyde), and I guess it just went on and on after that. The reason plastic took off the way it has can be summed up in one word—convenience. Plastic lasts an age (it takes 500 to 1,000 years to degrade once it is dumped in a landfill). Plastic is less expensive than most metals. It can be molded into nifty shapes, can take on pretty colours, is cheap to produce and easy to clean. Plastic storage containers are stronger than waxed paper containers. According to the Plastics Industry Trade Association (USA), today’s major appliances would cost 25 per cent more and use 30 per cent more energy than similar products produced without plastics. In short, it is everywhere.

imageThen, why is plastic so reviled? For one thing, it is not biodegradable. Trashed plastic bags are useless and ugly. Carelessly discarded, plastic bags were blamed for the 2005 deluge in Mumbai. In the US, plastic is said to account for 16 per cent of all municipal solid waste, with 50 to 80 percent littering beaches, oceans, and sea beds. In the oceans, sunlight and wave action cause floating plastics to fragment, breaking into increasingly smaller particles, but they never disappear completely. Instead, they are assimilated into the food chain; fish unknowingly ingest these particles and with biomagnification (sequence of processes in an ecosystem by which higher concentrations of a substance are attained in organisms of higher trophic level in the food chain) the toxic cocktail eventually ends up on our plates. Consider this: the North Pacific Gyre created by the North Pacific ocean currents is the most heavily researched of the five known gyres for plastic pollution in the world. It spans an area roughly twice the size of the US. The problem, therefore, is huge. Many fail to realise that we are predominantly looking at the disposal end of plastic life cycle when we think about all the problems it causes. Numerous studies in life cycle assessment have shown that all things considered, plastic beats paper in environmental terms. It takes four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag compared to a plastic one. It takes 98 per cent less energy to recycle about half of a kilogramme of plastic compared to an equivalent amount of paper.

The latest monster to rear its ugly head and urge naysayers against plastic is BPA or Bisphenol A. BPA is used in the synthesis of a number of plastic items such as baby bottles, sports equipment and certain medical devices. It is a known endocrine disruptor (chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects in both humans and wildlife). Endocrine disruptors may be natural or manmade, and include pharmaceuticals, dioxins and dioxin-like compounds, DDT and other pesticides. They may be found in many everyday products such as plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, toys and cosmetics. Studies are under way in the US and the EU to determine whether exposure to endocrine disruptors may result in lowered fertility and increased incidence of endometriosis and some cancers. However, the introduction of blanket legislative bans on BPA in plastics in the US and the EU is helping phasing it out. In India, sadly, the problem is yet to be recognised.

Having said that, there is no denying that plastic is here to stay. So, how do we deal with the problem? Demonising plastic is easy, but where do we go from there? I feel the answer lies in better recycling rates and creating awareness. The kabadiwallah (junk or scrap dealer) serves as the unofficial recycler of plastics in India, but much more needs to be done. There is no other government-sponsored recycling infrastructure to speak of. Demand for post-consumer plastics needs to be stepped up. This can be done with careful realigning of policies to the effect. The authorities in particular need to enact and implement laws with teeth. In my view, clever (eco-friendly) product design can help win half the battle. These initiatives are not quixotic thinking; they have been known to work in many other countries. Bans and fees on disposable plastics are working to protect people and the environment worldwide. When businesses accept Extended Producer Responsibility to recover products from consumers after their useful lives are over, make more durable products, and create less waste, they reduce the financial burden on municipalities and the pollution burden on our environment. Consider how much difference you can make by ensuring that you and your neighbours use cloth bags each to buy groceries. Unfortunately, we often fail miserably on most counts. While the government accepts there is a problem, it does little to address it. The truth is that every article we use, every action we take, every discovery we make, has the potential to distort our environment. Nothing is environmentally benign. This is how we deal with the issue that matters.

Mahazareen Dastur is an environmental researcher and writer based in Mumbai

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