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.