What is Plastic ?

Plastic is a material consisting of any wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organics that are malleable and can be molded into solid objects of diverse shapes. Plastics are typically organic polymers of high molecular mass, but they often contain other substances.

Plastic generally degrades in about 500 – 1000 years, though we may never know its actual degradation time, as this material has been in long-term use only since the last century. During its manufacturing, many hazardous chemicals are emitted that can lead to dreadful diseases in humans as well as other animals. Ethylene oxide, xylene, and benzene are some of the chemical toxins present in plastic, which can have hazardous effects on the environment. It is not easy to dispose it off, and it can cause permanent harm to living beings. Several additives found in plastic such as phthalates, adipates, and even alkyl phenols have been recognized as toxic materials. Vinyl chloride, which is used in the manufacturing of PVC pipes, is classified as a carcinogen.

Uses Of Plastics

Plastics are widely used in:

  • Packaging industry
  • Construction industry
  • Disposable cutlery
  • Storage, etc

In India approximately 8 million tons plastics are consumed every year which was expected to rise 20 million tons by 2020. Considering 70%of total plastic consumption is discarded as waste, approx. 6 million tons per annum plastic is generated in the country.

Causes & Effects

  • As plastic is less expensive, it is overused. When it is disposed of in landfill sites, it does not decompose at a fast rate, and hence pollutes the land or soil in that area.
  • Most people tend to throw plastic bottles and polythene bags away, even after a single use. This drastically increases its pollution rate on land as well as in the oceans, mainly in the developing and underdeveloped countries.
  • Plastic bags, plastic bottles, discarded electronic components, toys, etc., clog the water bodies like canals, rivers, and lakes, especially in the urban areas.
  • Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic is produced all over the world. Out of this, about 6 million tons of nondegradable plastic gets accumulated in the environment.
  • Soil fertility is also affected due to plastic material as it forms part of manure remaining in the soil for years without natural degradation.
  • Death of animals due to suffocation, stomach and intestine related diseases is a common feature mostly in developing economies due to improper disposal of plastic food bags that are eaten by these animals. Many animals ingest plastic bags, mistaking them for food and therefore, die. And worse, the ingested plastic bag remains intact even after the death and decomposition of the animal. Thus, it lies around in the landscape where another victim may ingest it.
  • Approximately 70,000 tons of plastic are dumped in the oceans and seas globally. Discarded fishing nets and other synthetic material are eaten by terrestrial as well as aquatic animals, by mistaking them for jellyfish or food, leading to the bio-accumulation of plastic inside their bodies. This can cause choking in them, ultimately leading to their death. Scores of fish and turtles die every year because of this.
  • The rural areas are more prone to this type of pollution and the related effects, as a majority of the people from these areas use plastic on a large scale.
  • During the rainy season, the plastic rubbish that has fallen on the road gets washed away into the nearby water reservoirs, canals, and drains, leading to their choking up and overflowing. Also, the water quality gets spoiled due to the addition of these synthetic materials.
  • When dumped in landfills, plastic materials interact with water and form hazardous chemicals. If these compounds seep down towards groundwater aquifers, they degrade the water quality, leading to groundwater pollution.
  • Plastic pollution in marine water bodies leads to innumerable deaths of aquatic animals, and this also affects the aquatic plants to a considerable degree.
  • Blockage due to plastic accumulation may form shelters for the breeding of mosquitoes and other harmful insects, which might cause numerous diseases in human.
  • The quality of drinking water on our planet is deteriorating, as plastic releases some toxic chemicals such as Styrene Trimer, Bisphenol A, and a by-product of Polystyrene. These products are worsening the drinking water situation with every passing day. Bisphenol A is a harmful chemical that damages the reproductive system of animals.
  • Bio-accumulation of plastic inside animals is one of the most recent effects of plastic pollution. Over many years, the accumulated plastic releases harmful chemicals, and also breaks down into small pieces, causing extreme discomfort to the animals. After their death, the body might decompose, but the plastic fragments may remain as a threat to other animals.
  • Wind carries and deposits plastic from one place to another, increasing the land litter. It also gets stuck on fences, trees, towers, buildings, etc., and any animal that comes in its vicinity might even get tangled and suffocate to death.
  • Burning plastic leads to contamination of the atmosphere, due to the release of poisonous chemicals, leading to air pollution. Recycling requires labours, who are at the risk of developing skin and respiratory problems due to inhalation of toxic chemicals.

Plastic Waste Mannagement

Plastic, one of the wonderful inventions of 20th Century, is a Ubiquitous material.   A plastic has replaced the traditional material (paper / cloth etc.,) as packing and carry bags because of cost of convenience.   India has witnessed a substantial growth in the consumption of plastics and increased production of plastic waste.   The plastic waste is now considered as environmental hazard due to the “Throw away culture”.     The hazards plastics pose are numerous.

  • The land gets littered by plastic bag garbage presenting an ugly and unhygienic seen.
  • The “Throw away culture” results in these bags finding their way in to the city drainage system, the resulting blockage causes inconvenience, difficult in maintaining the drainage with increased cost, creates unhygienic environment resulting in health hazard and spreading of water borne diseases.
  • This littering also reduces rate of rain water percolating, resulting in lowering a already low water levels in our cities.
  • The soil fertility deteriorates as the plastic bags form part of manure remain in the soil for years.
  • It has been observed that the animals eating the bags sometimes die.
  • Plastic goes into the ocean which is already a plastic infested body of water.  Fish and other marine species in the water ways, misunderstanding plastic garbage as food items swallow them and die.

Recycling/Reusage of Plastic Waste

The recycled plastics are more harmful to the environment than the virgin products due to mixing of colour, additives, stabilizers, flame retardants etc. Further, the recycling of a virgin plastic material can be done 2-3 times only, because, after every recycling, the strength of plastic material is reduced due to thermal degradation. In India, there is no specific rule for managing and monitoring of plastic waste recycling industries. Recyclers are using crude methods to thermally degrade the plastic which is causing serious hazards to health and environment.

India is being rated highest among all the countries for its recycling business. Plastic menace can be tackled only if a scientific and permanent solution can be found for its disposal. Plastic waste to roads and other construction materials is the feasible and scietific solution for plastic menace.

Solutions And Preventive Measures

  • Though commodities made of plastic are handy, the threat due to plastic to earth is known. Before the picture turns even uglier, it is better to take effective preventive measures to reduce plastic pollution products.
  • To bring a decline in its usage, start using paper or cloth bags for shopping and other purposes as much as possible, and avoid bringing plastic bags at home.
  • Understand the severity of the problem of plastic pollution, and know the consequences of dumping plastic in water and on land.
  • Ensure proper disposal of plastic.
  • Plastic which is disposed of can be recycled and used in many different ways such as for tote bags, wallets, or pouches. There are biodegradable plastic bags available, which can help to a considerable extent.
  • Fuel conversion, Mixing in road making and recycle of plastic waste.

These changes might be gradual and even less appealing against the problem; but taking small steps can greatly contribute to the reduction of plastic pollution. It is time for us to take some preventive steps, and ensure a better life for the future generations.