Book review: Plastics for Environment & Sustainable Development

For those concerned about the 'plastic age' in which we live, this 'eco-assessment study' is a must read. But do not go by the report's name, for its purpose seems to be to give a befitting reply to all campaigners who keep crying that plastics are bad

By Nidhi Jamwal
Published: Monday 30 June 2003

-- Plastics for Environment & Sustainable Development Indian Centre for Plastics in the Environment & Central Institute of Plastics Engineering & Technology, Chennai Indian Centre for Plastics in the Environment 2003

For those concerned about the 'plastic age' in which we live, this 'eco-assessment study' is a must read. But do not go by the report's name, for its purpose seems to be to give a befitting reply to all campaigners who keep crying that plastics are bad.

First, some facts. As per the report, India's polymer consumption is about four million tonnes per annum. This is expected to touch 12 million tonnes in 2010. The annual turnover of the plastic industry is pegged at Rs 420 crore, and it employs close to three million people. Plastic is used in telecommunications, healthcare, the food industry, the entertainment indystry and agriculture. 6,000 metric tonnes of plastic furniture save 32,000 hectares of forest. All this proves beyond doubt -- the study argues -- how integral plastics are to our economy and daily lives.

But what is the logic of the argument? The report says "over one billion people lack routine access to water and around 35 per cent of deaths in the developing world are due to contaminated water". It then offers the following solution: "plastic pipes and filters are helping to improve that situation by supplying clean drinking water...". Sounds like a sales pitch? In the same vein, the report suggests that "bottled water ... reduces the risk of water borne diseases, hence provides an improvement in the health sector". This is completely incorrect (see: "Pesticide residues in bottled water", Feb 15, 2003). A fancy plastic bottle does not ensure purity.

The study also touches upon controversial polyvinyl chloride (pvc) plastic. Some experts claim pvc is carcinogenic and should be phased out. But the plastic industry has always promoted it as safe. The study claims that pvc use has made footwear affordable to the poor; pvc can be easily recycled. But has it looked at how pvc chappals get recycled? Ragpickers melt these chappals in the open. pvc burning is linked with the emission of dioxin, a persistent organic pollutant. Rather than addressing the issue, the study claims "there is no reason to blame pvc as the dioxin source ... and there is no reason at all to exchange pvc for alternatives to reduce dioxin emissions".

Everything is grist to the study's blindly pro-plastic mill. Just two examples: page 182 has a picture of a young girl drinking crystal clear water from a plastic pipe, with the caption 'plastic pipe ensures safe and hygienic potable water'. Page 66 shows a smiling Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, next to the breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai. The text reads, "world renowned Indian doctor Chittarranjan Ranawat who specializes in knee joint operation has been using plastics for this sophisticated medical wonder". What is hagiography doing in an eco-assessment study?

Or is promoting bin-culture the raison d'etre? Plastic toys have reduced hazards to children because they are light and do not have sharp edges: "this is particularly true for toys with softer plastics". In saying this, the study completely forgets to mention phthalates, added to plastic toys to make them soft. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors, and are also linked with various reproductive health problems. Many industrialised countries have banned use of pvc in toys. But in India its use continues unabated, and this study endorses such use.

Finally, let's look at plastic waste management. The report discusses the four basic principles of waste management: reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover. But then, it contradicts itself. On the one hand, it claims that "plastic recycling rates in India are amongst the highest in the world". But the very next page says, "India is still unaware of the actual benefits of recycling". The report fails to address the hazardous recycling happening in the dingy by-lanes of cities. It talks about upgrading recycling units, but ignores the 'how' and 'when'. The study claims that incineration could be a good way of managing plastic waste and cites the example of Japan, which incinerates huge amounts of waste to recover energy; it forgets to mention that Japan has the highest amount of dioxins emissions.

Plastics are a part of our daily lives. Precisely why we need to look at their manufacture, use and disposal more comprehensively. 'Sustainable development' isn't just a fashionable term. Doesn't the plastic industry have some intelligent arguments to offer?

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