POINT IAS

Plastic Problem and associated dimensions.

Plastic is clearly an environmental crisis, with an estimated eight million animal-killing tonnes entering the oceans each year.

Relevant data:

  • In the last 70 years, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced. 
  • Of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced, 6.3 billion tonnes have been discarded. Every year, nearly 13 million tonnes of plastic waste are added to oceans. 
  • In India, 80 % of total plastic consumption is discarded as waste and official statistics say the country generates 25, 940 tonnes of plastic waste daily. At least 40% of this waste is uncollected. 
  • 90% of the plastic waste in the world’s oceans is carried there by just 10 rivers – two of which are in India.
  • According FICCI, Indians consume 11 kg of plastic per year in comparison to 109 kg by an average American. But this figure is estimated to rise in the coming years.
  • According to FICCI, 43 per cent of India’s plastics are used in packaging and are single-use plastic.
  • A plastic bottle takes between 450-1000 years to decompose. 

VARIOUS DIMENSIONS

The problem of single use plastic – Much of the growth in plastic production is driven by single use or disposable applications. Nearly 50 % of plastics used are single use products such as bottles, plastic bags, packaging, straws, stirrers, spoons and forks.

Waste collectors realise that single-use plastics are not useful in the market in terms of their economic value. So in the end a lot of cost is externalised either onto waste collectors or to the environment.

Policy Regulations in India –India’s first attempt at tackling the menace of plastic waste came in 2011 when the government notified the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011. The policy sought to disincentivise the use of poly bags by setting up a pricing mechanism for them and also to establish rules for recycling by local authorities. The Rules were replaced with a stronger Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. The new rules gave emphasis on a complete ban on plastics below 50 microns, phasing out use of multi-layered packaging and introducing extended producer responsibility (EPR) for producers, importers and brand owners to ensure environmentally sound management of plastic products until the end of their lives. 

Why is plastic preferred – Plastic is a great material for that application because it’s a water barrier, it’s an oxygen barrier, it’s lightweight, durable and it helps preserve food

Microplasts Another worrying aspect of plastics are minute particulate plastics (particles measuring less than 5mm), or micro-plastics. When exposed to ultra-violet solar rays, water and salts, plastic can deteriorate and fragment into miniscule particles. They can be ingested by simple life forms and enter the food chain. Such microplastics are also manufactured to be used in several consumer products. Microplastics settle in phytoplankton, or the microscopic organisms at the base of the marine food chain and thus can affect marine life and eventually humans.

Using plastics in building roadsThere are more than 34,000km of plastic roads in India, mostly in rural areas. More than half of the roads in the southern state of Tamil Nadu are plastic. Dr. R. Vasudevan, known as the ‘Plastic Man of India,’ has been awarded the Padma Shri for inventing a process to build roads using plastic that involves mixing shredded plastic with hot gravel and adding it to molten asphalt. Plastic and bitumen bond well together because both are petroleum products. This combination enhances the road’s ability to carry weight, as well as its life.

These roads are sturdy and are cost effective (each kilometre of plastic roads costs roughly 8% less than a conventional road.). A performance appraisal by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) showed that plastic roads did not develop familiar defects: potholes, rutting, ravelling or edge flaw, even after four years. Besides opening up an avenue to use plastic waste, the roads built with polymerised asphalt last longer. The waterproofing quality ensures that the water doesn’t seep down, thus reducing wear and tear. While asphalt roads are expected to last for three years, roads with plastic as an add-on aggregate ensures longevity of seven years. The waterproofing makes the roads ‘pothole-proof’. Roads with the polymerised mix also don’t crack or melt under extreme heat conditions. However, using plastics in roads can have an effect on the environment in the long term. Old or poorly built roads may shed plastic fragments into the soil and waterways when they deteriorate.

Source: The Hindu and World Economic Forum

Way ahead:

  • As packaging comprises fully 40% of the more than 380 million tonnes of plastic produced globally each year there is a need for introducing changes at the product design stages that facilitate easy collection, sorting and subsequent recycling. 
  • Encouraging recycling, reuse, or alternative use of plastic waste which can help reduce the amount of virgin plastic produced. 
  • Substitution of plastic with other biodegradable materials such as reused cotton or paper.
  • Banning ‘throw-away’ plastics as has been done in many European countries.
  • Providing subsidies to single use waste collectors to encourage them to collect single use plastic.
  • Encouraging programmes like ‘Suchitwa Sagarm’ which trains fishermen to collect the plastic and bring it back to shore.

Sources: Economic Times and Down to Earth

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