The Plastic Menace – Aspiring for a Plastic Free Home

From the first object we pick up on opening our eyes every morning, to the last button we switch off at night, plastic is the material we touch and see all around us. Plastic as a material, has become an addiction. Yet there is increasing focus on the plastic menace, and the threat to life on planet earth.

It is not unusual for man to create things that eventually end up threatening his own survival. Starting out as a convenient, safe, easy to use, unbreakable though totally malleable, durable material, plastic was the big invention of the 19th century. A chemical compound, plastic is a polymeric material that can be shaped and molded by applying heat into myriad shapes and products, that are lightweight and yet not easy to break. Its plasticity apart, plastic is tough and transparent, with low density and low electric conductivity. Its usability extends from bags and bottles to machine parts, equipment and even textiles.

In simple terms plastics are chains of light molecules linked together. These chains are termed polymers, and come in forms like polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and so on. Easy to manufacture at low costs, they are waterproof and not easily breakable, even being resistant to corrosion and chemicals.

The Plastic story – how it all began

The very first known plastics come from nature, in the form of rubber, which has all the properties that plastic is known for. Plastic is derived from natural materials like oil, natural gas, coal, plants and minerals. The first synthetic plastics ever made, though, were made from cellulose, a material found in trees and plants. When heated and mixed with certain chemicals, cellulose yielded a highly durable material that could be put to numerous uses. It was also easy to make plastic out of hydrocarbons, found in oil, natural gas and coal.

The first fully synthetic plastic was invented in 1907, and made without using any natural raw material, it was called bakelite. The onset of World War II saw plastic being used to make lightweight airplane parts and nylon parachutes. It facilitated preserving scarce natural resources, and plastic being easy to mass produce, became the preferred raw material whose production increased by 300%. Plastic became the winning material across the globe, replacing steel in cars, for lighter parts in machines and airplanes, wood for furniture and glass and paper for packaging.

Plastic is cheap, and from its earliest days, it was used to make things that we did not wish to keep for long. Soon it got the prefix, ‘disposable’, meaning use and throw. Thus, it helped overcome the limitations of glass, iron and wood, and helped revolutionize the medical sector. It helped save fuel costs as machines and aircrafts became lighter, preserve the freshness of food by providing a fine transparent wrap to over, create toys for children, film rolls and prints, help transport drinking water to remote corners of the earth, and spare wildlife that was poached for ivory and tortoise shells.

From boon to menace

Plastic was created for a good cause, a substitute for scarce natural resources, to facilitate life and activity, not disrupt and threaten it. It was a boon that should have stayed within limits, but its production was unstoppable and usage far beyond the need.

As plastic surrounded us in every possible shape and form, it gradually came to be perceived as a cheap, inferior material of poor quality. Its mass production also meant that its waste began to pile up and it first cropped up as an environmental issue in the 1960s when the first plastic waste was found in oceans.

Plastic seems so easy to dispose of, takes less space, and is lightweight. But the abundance of plastic has made its waste also reach alarming proportions. It is non-biodegradable and will last forever in the environment (it takes 500 years for plastic to degenerate), and will keep increasing, since very little can be recycled, most of it being single use plastic. The additives that go into making plastic are harmful for all life, and the toxic chemicals leeched out of plastic end up in the human blood stream and body tissue, causing disease.

The plastic bag touted as the big find of the 1970s, has become the biggest menace, with 1 trillion bags produced annually, and almost a million bags used per minute. The convenience of carrying disposable water bottles, Styrofoam cups, glasses and straws, have only added to the colossal plastic piles. We carelessly throw such bottles etc, little realizing how its adding up – some 15000 water bottles are discarded into bins every minute globally. This accumulation of plastic products that float in streams, cover vast areas of land, end up adversely affecting life and habitats on the planet and has come to be called plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution has impacted 40% of existing marine species. According to the National Geographic magazine, nearly 9 million tons of plastic flows into oceans annually from the coastal regions. In urban areas, overflowing drains clogged with plastic, heaps of garbage in which plastic is conspicuous, have become sights we have grown to ignore, little realizing our own contribution to the mess. Landfills are seen on the outskirts of cities, beaches have corners where the piles seem to be constantly rising, and sometimes when the tide rises higher, it sweeps away some of the plastic into the ocean, which then mistaken for food, gets consumed by marine creatures, causing them a painful death when their digestive tract gets blocked.

The growth of plastic in all forms has far outstripped the ability of the waste management industry to dispose it of, without harming the environment. This is particularly true in the rapidly growing Asian countries where waste management and awareness about problems posed by plastic is in its nascent stages and largely ignored.

Myanmar is also seeing increasing levels of plastic pollution, where an estimated 200 tons of waste enters waterways everyday. Attempts are being made by grassroots organizations to educate the people about minimizing plastic waste, and help people make small changes that will have a beneficiary long term impact.

The way forward – start small, keep plastic free homes

Plastic is here to stay, more for its practical uses, and for making things easier. Using it responsibly, is in our hands though. If bio-degrading solutions could be found, plastic would become similar to the organic waste, and focusing on recyclable plastic would help in limiting waste quantities, and prevent it from reaching oceans and water bodies, threatening marine life and even polluting the food chain.

Only 18% of plastic is recycled, and plastic bottles remain the most used. Recycling reduces the need for producing more quantities of plastic and the existing plastic gets used rather than going in to landfills and waterbodies. The first recycling mill accepted residential plastic in 1972, and since then plastics have been segregated and sent to such mills that are now seen in every part of the world. Ideally, the waste at one stage must become a resource for the next.

The toughest issue is finding alternate solutions to plastic. Till then, we can take a few small steps, by not buying more plastic, what is discarded must not be replaced with more plastic, and make conscious changes in our daily life, what we buy, how we use and how we throw. We must stop accepting plastic bags from super markets, instead carry our own reusable bags, made of paper or cloth; replace all our plastic containers with those of glass or steel, never get take-away single use plastic boxes, minimize the use of cling film and Ziploc bags, avoid microwaveable plastics, and use only glass bottles for water and for storing other things. A plastic free kitchen would actually be a dream, but one cannot change the plastic used to make some of the gadgets we use. It will also help if we buy natural, locally produced unpackaged soaps, buy shampoos in glass bottles and oil in tin containers. With none of these to throw, our trash cans will be lighter too.

We need to change our mindset towards plastic. In Myanmar, as early as 2013, it was heartening to see the famed Sharky’s Restaurant and Deli, pack foodstuff in carry bags made out of newspaper. Retailers are trying to do their bit to reduce the plastic bag menace. It is estimated that an average of 4 plastic bags per person per day get used in Myanmar. Citimart, the leading supermarket, marks the last day of the month as ‘no plastic bags day’. It is heartening to see some carry their own reusable bags to bring back their purchases. Paper bags are a good substitute but has its flipside too. While paper takes resources and time to generate, plastic takes a longer time to degenerate!

Plastic must not flood our planet and leave little place for living beings, and this needs every individual’s contribution.

Myanmar’s Bamboo – A promising wood substitute

The thin, hollow, woody poles seen standing tall in numerous places to protect and support, in villages and cities, are of the ubiquitous bamboo, a plant that is far deeply entrenched into the common man’s life in Myanmar, literally from cradle to grave and at every step in-between. This is to be expected in a country that has the third highest proportion of bamboo forest cover globally, after China and India. Though classified as a minor forest product in the non wood category, the bamboo industry is estimated to be worth 25 billion USD globally, as it gradually replaces various wood varieties at every level.

Called ‘waa’ in the local language, bamboo is actually a wild grass belonging to the gramineae family and bambusoideae sub-family. Growing wild in tropical and subtropical forests over 1200 different species of bamboo are found worldwide covering 18 million hectares, and 96 of these species are found in Myanmar’s vast forest lands. Bamboos grow freely mixed with other plants and have been seen to form the under storey in high wild forests, besides being planted for multiple uses as well.

Bamboo is one of the easiest plants to grow, not requiring highly fertile soil or ample amounts of water, though it thrives more in soil that is slightly acidic with a reasonable amount of water. As one of the fastest growing plants, most bamboo varieties add a few inches of height every day, with some tropical large varieties growing as much as 35 inches in the span of a day at the rate of 3 cm per hour. Thus, in the growing season, a bamboo plant reaches its full height within three to four months. In the first year the bamboo grows vertically, and nodes develop branches and leaves in the second year as the culm (the pulp-like wall) dries and hardens, though it reaches its full hardness in the third year. Growth of bamboo takes place during the rainy season and the culms are ready to be harvested after 2-3 years and ideally between 5-7 years. A single bamboo clump, in its lifetime, can produce approximately 15 km of usable pole with a diameter upto 30 cm. This is because new shoots keep emerging and the plant regenerates.

Myanmar’s bamboo resources

Myanmar has forests covering over half its land area, of which 3% is covered with bamboo, as part of its evergreen and deciduous forests, and as pure bamboo stands in the state of Rakhine and Taninthayi Division.

Myanmar is famous for some very superior bamboo species like Kalway-Wa (dendrocalamus asper) and Wani ( dendrocalamus lotiflorus), both used for commercial production of bamboo shoots. It is one of the largest exporters of young bamboo shoots, an exotic delicacy in neighboring China. Other common bamboo species include wagok, waphyu, wabo, wabo-myetsangye, thana, myin, kayin, tin, thaik, and kyathaung. Fourteen species are commercially significant for the economy.

Besides natural forests, bamboo plantations have been expanding in various parts of Myanmar. It is also seen growing along stream banks and on lower hill slopes, while also being planted in zoological gardens, urban landscapes, gardens, parks and monasteries to meet local demand.

Bamboo for sustainable development and environment protection

Bamboo is one the fastest growing, extremely versatile and the highest productivity multipurpose plant in the world. As a high yielding forestry crop, it is a renewable environmentally sustainable resource that continuously spreads vegetatively. This implies that bamboo helps in creating thick forests much faster than an assortment of other tree species together. Also, its mature stems can be harvested while the plant continues to grow and extend its younger stems.

It is being increasingly acknowledged as a substitute for wood that will protect the environment and ensure development that is sustainable. Many countries use bamboo for environmental protection, soil conservation, prevention of erosion on hill slopes and other ecological purposes.

Bamboo absorbs huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which it converts into oxygen. Interestingly the carbon dioxide it absorbs, stays trapped inside and is never released even after it has been harvested and transformed into value added products that are useful domestically and commercially. Thus it serves as a carbon sink.

While maintaining fresh water resources, one hectare of tropical bamboo forest area can store more than 30,000 liters of water in its culms during the rainy season. This water is gradually deposited back into the soil during dry periods thus regulating water supply.

Bamboo forests also help in sediment control by forming a wall that prevents loss of flow in rivers. Their forest cover, like a canopy prevents evaporation of water from streams. With its complex woven root system and thick plantation it is recommended in areas prone to landslides.

Bamboo as a substitute for wood

Some of the larger bamboos like the Phyllostachys species has been named ‘timber bamboo’, and is being used as a substitute for wood for decades, without reducing the size of the forests it grows in.

Bamboo has a higher compressive strength compared to wood and concrete, and its tensile strength is comparable to that of steel. This makes it hard and durable, and ideal for use in construction as posts, roofing, walls, floors and beams. Its pulp is as good for making paper as wood pulp. Straightened out, bamboo laminates make the perfect flooring in high quality constructions at very reasonable rates. It is good for making sturdy furniture, household products, boats and makeshift bridges across narrow streams and canals.

Bamboo is actually a perfect timber substitute that can preserve the dwindling timber supply and further cutting of trees to procure wood for its numerous uses to fulfill the needs of increasing populations.

Bamboo’s multitude uses

There are a phenomenal 1500 uses of bamboo worldwide, and its true worth is only gradually coming to the fore as a multimillion dollar trade product. Its lightness in weight, strength, straight length and elasticity makes it a versatile product that is easily available at very reasonable rates.

In rural areas, stacked together it provides protection and shelter, dug into the ground it gives support, straightened out, it serves as a wooden plank.

Cut and dried, it is the perfect material for kitchenware, toys, chin-lone balls, walking sticks, fishing rods, parasols etc. Musical instruments like clappers and xylophones are made out of bamboo, with its hollow insides rendering perfect sound.

It is possible to construct full bamboo houses complete with bamboo floor, cross beams, partitions, fences, staircases and walls. Parquet floors, blinds and panels, furniture and fences, gates and sheds of superior quality can be made out of this material. Handicrafts can adorn homes and interiors, and in the kitchen a whole range of cooking utensils and dishes have become common. The bamboo chopsticks industry is growing to meet global demand for the same.

Bamboo charcoal is used as fuel and made from small pieces and residue of bamboo that are compressed and carbonized. It is also being innovatively used to purify water since it helps to eliminate odors and impurities.

Preserved edible bamboo shoots – the cone shaped sprouts emerging from the soil are tasty and tender when harvested very young. It has 90% water, is a rich source of vitamins and amino acids, high in fiber and cellulose, besides being a low calorie source of potassium.

Bamboo plants have become a favorite for decoration indoors and in gardens and parks. Considered lucky and a symbol of longevity, various decorative varieties of bamboo are found on sale.

In Chinese medicine bamboo is believed to cure infections and aid healing. In Ayurveda, it is used to treat respiratory diseases.

Bamboo pulp is being increasingly used for making paper to save other hard woods that take decades to grow to their full height. Myanmar is emerging as a big source of bamboo pulp that can be used for writing and printing paper. The most common species used for paper pulp are dendrocalamus asper and bamboo bluemanea.

Myanmar’s famed lacquer ware uses bamboo as the base, and the bamboo from forests of Chin state is considered ideal for this purpose.

Boats used in the countless waterways and water bodies are often made out of bamboo due to its properties.

Bamboo as a money spinner for Myanmar

Bamboo is deeply embedded in the lifestyle of Myanmar folk, and historical evidence points to a culture of using bamboo in numerous ways.

Bamboo is a renewable, self generating natural resource unlike timber. New shoots appear annually, after mature culms have been harvested. Interestingly, shoots appear in burnt plants, something unheard of in the world of wood. Bamboo plantations see re-growth even after being burnt down which means no new investment nor sources of irrigation or soil improvement is required.

Quick to grow, bamboo is unlike teak and other premium wood varieties where trees take 20-25 years to mature and grow to their full height. This translates into quicker cash returns after planting bamboo with a very short gestation period. For a country like Myanmar, vast expanses of idle land can be lucratively utilized for bamboo cultivation.

Myanmar’s numerous waterways are the ideal way to transport bamboo, and also the cheapest, and far more convenient than timber.

Environmentalists are convinced about the earning potential of Myanmar’s huge bamboo forests that can produce sustainable crops to be sold globally to meet the spiraling demand for bamboo. The current neglect and uncared for bamboo produce has meant loss of its earning potential both domestically where bamboo is used in every walk of life, and internationally, with many countries opting for bamboo instead of wood. Some technical help and investment in this field can make bamboo the next big export product from the country.

The International Tropical Timber Organization initiated a Bamboo project in 2005, to conserve some Myanmar specific bamboo species through the setting up of bamboo demonstration plots in Kawhmu, Pyinmana and Paukkhaung bamboo plantations.

Beyond these efforts, it is important to not allow the nation’s bamboo resources to be depleted, and the locals must be educated about its value. Till now, the country’s bamboo plantations have been virtually unprotected and not well cared for. Bamboo is harvested as and when needed and sold cheap, and only a small tax is levied on the harvested bamboo. Little wonder then, that where other countries earn over 500 billion USD from bamboo sales, the revenue generated in Myanmar is just USD 1 billion.

Bamboo’s ability to regenerate is threatened by its destructive harvesting and indiscriminate chopping methods. This has affected output and productivity adversely, and quality is deteriorating gradually. The bamboo supply base been seen shrinking in the last few years. The only way out is to step up bamboo silvi-culture to protect tropical forests and ensuring a sustained supply of this wood substitute.

Bamboo and its symbolic significance

Bamboo’s diverse uses have led to it being known by various names like ‘green gold’, biosteel, and poor man’s timber. It was first referred to as green gold during the 7th World Bamboo Congress in India, since bamboo can prove to the vehicle that can boost economies, with its diverse uses and the products that can be made out of it, offering employment opportunities to the rural poor.

Bamboo is known to denote friendship and is described as a ‘friend of the people’ in China and India.  In Vietnam it is described as ‘brother’. Its long life makes it a symbol of uprightness and is used extensively to improve various aspects of life according to the Chinese principles of Feng Shui. Since bamboo plants flower very rarely, their blossoming is said to be a sign of impending famine.

It is also famous as ‘poor man’s timber’, since it is a cheaper alternative to wood, that has diverse uses and offers complete solutions for living and survival to the rural poor, including employment opportunities.


Vast vacant lands to the tune of 178,000 acres in Pegu and Tenasserim Yomas mountain ranges are said to be lying vacant. Their geographic conditions are highly suitable for bamboo plantations, which can generate a lot of revenue, reduce the pressure on teak and other hard woods, and ensure that Myanmar’s rich forest resources stay intact.