The long and politically tortuous journey to fight plastic menace

Topics plastic | Plastics | plastic ban

The growing use of plastics, a small percentage of which is recycled, is causing a spasm of popular disgust across the world. Not only are there emissions of enormous quantities of greenhouse gases in the course of production of around 350 million tonnes (mt) of plastics every year, the environment suffers further serious damage as most of used plastics goes into landfill sites or is burnt or is just littered everywhere from city streets to sea shores.  

The versatility of the light but strong synthetic material made from fossil feedstock oil has created many application opportunities at low cost. In fact, plastic has replaced aluminium, steel and natural fibres such as jute and hemp in many applications, including particularly packaging. What, however, has raised public ire is the growing application of plastics in packaging, particularly in the quintessential single-use products. Consulting firm McKinsey estimates that packaging claims a quarter of the total plastics use.

Environmentalists’ concern relates primarily to the fact that the intended life of single-use plastic products is less than a year. Because of their mostly remaining beyond the pale of established waste collection system for recycling purposes, they float on the earth for centuries.

In view of the damage that is being done to our marine life, fisheries and farming, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a call on Independence Day that “the time has come for freeing India from single-use plastic.” In fact, in this regard, India goes well beyond the tokenism practised in many countries. In Grand Slam and other major tournaments, tennis players will be seen removing plastic racket wrappers on court. Wimbledon banned the practice this time. Instead of banning their use, a large number of countries have obliged retailers to charge customers a token amount for disposable plastic bags. Check with big retailers in India, such as Reliance Retail, Big Bazaar and Spencer’s, they all have surrendered to consumer preference and functional benefits of plastic bags rather than being environmentally correct.

A joint report by McKinsey, Ellen Mac-Arthur and the World Economic Forum has estimated the negative externalities of plastics at $40 billion and that exceeds the manufacturers’ profits. Among plastic-packaging leaks into natural systems, oceans figure most prominently with a share of nearly one-third. At regular frequency, newspapers will have reports of marine species such as whales, turtles and fishes dying because of their ingesting plastic waste mistaking that for food. Our beaches are an example of the damage that the “throw it away society” could wrought. Go to any beach in India or elsewhere, you will see plastic debris littering the shore. No wonder, then, birds unwittingly feeding on floating plastic garbage are perishing in growing numbers. Necropsies of dead birds’ stomachs are found filled with plastics.

Used plastics thrown in the open take wing and travel long distances to invade every part of the planet, including the most remote reaches of the Arctic. But how do plastics discarded in urban centres find their way into the Arctic? A study published in the current issue of the American Association for the Advancement of Science journal Science Advances says propelled by atmospheric winds micro-plastics fall on the Arctic. Since micro-plastics remain airborne, human beings and animals breathe them in posing health risk. The study of rising plastic debris on the Arctic sea floor found the decadal growth scary, including a tenfold rise at one observation point.

At this point plastics recycle at the rate of less than 40 per cent compared with 80 per cent for steel and around 77 per cent for aluminium cans. Collection of end-of-life vehicles and plant and machinery for conversion into steel scrap and aluminium cans for smelting is getting better and better globally, including in India. Both World Steel Association and International Aluminium Association are aggressively promoting the environment friendliness of their respective metals based on their infinite recyclability. The environment and health concern about single-use plastics is seen as an opportunity by the aluminium industry to muscle into canning still water. Plastics are also facing competition from glass in still water bottling. Modi’s dislike for plastics and the worldwide adverse publicity for the material bode well for jute, which over the years has seen plastic bags making inroads into sugar and foodgrain packing.

In a report, McKinsey says the plastics-related environmental problem will reach “a whole new level” by 2030 when waste volumes would grow to 460 mt from 260 mt in 2016 on the assumption of current demand growth sustaining. The petrochemical industry must be confident about the market for its products expanding. Otherwise, why should it be thinking of achieving a capacity of 600 mt by 2034? At the same time, public outcry against plastics has made the industry realise that it must move beyond the use-once-and-discard approach and by way of intensive R&D make plastic waste an “important driver of profitability for chemical companies.”

McKinsey suggests plastics could live down their negative image and reshape the industry economy by applying “circular economy principles to global plastic packaging flows”. The suggested practice could “drastically reduce negative externalities” of plastics. Pressure is mounting on chemical companies to embrace a “new plastics economy” that will promote effective collection systems for recycling. Hopefully, industry research into splitting plastics into their components for making new materials will be a success leading to commercialisation. The circular economy advocated for plastics has already been embraced by steel, aluminium and copper giving relief to environmentalists.

Take the most commonly produced plastic in the form of polyethylene where the rate of recycling is only 10 per cent. Scientists, however, see wealth in waste polyethylene. The material consists of a long chain of carbon, which could be turned into value-added polymers. At the laboratory, much progress has been made to convert some varieties of used plastic into high value “pliable wax like biodegradable plastic.” The new material could find application in mulch farming and for making bag and writing instrument. McKinsey advocates “decoupling plastics from fossil feedstock” by adopting renewably sourced feed materials. But that will be a long and politically tortuous journey.

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