Dangers of Plastic - RSTV The Big Picture


Anchor: Frank Rausan Pereira
Speakers: Siddhanta Das, Director General, Forests, Chetan Chauhan, Deputy National Affairs Editor, Hindustan Times, Prof. C.K. Varshney, Environmentalist, Dr. Amit Munjal, Cardiologist, W Pratiksha Hospital

Importance of this Episode:

  • A senior United Nations official said India has set an example on the world stage by committing to beat plastic pollution and showcased best practices and innovations to overcome the challenge. Speaking ahead of the World Environment Day on June 5, to which India is the global host, Naysan Sahba, director of the UN Environment Programme’s Division of Communications and Public Information, said India is “very active” in tackling issues related to environmental pollution.
  • He commended India’s commitment in overcoming the challenge in overcoming plastic pollution.
  • On this edition of ‘The Big Picture’ we analyse the dangers of plastic.

Analysis by the Experts:

How toxic is plastic and how big a threat is plastic to us?

  • Plastic is made artificially from petroleum products. It has got many different kinds of complex organic compounds which are very toxic. As we use plastic, most of these compounds gradually release, and they seep out. As a result, they enter into our bodies through a long process of the food chain.
  • At the same time, when we discard plastic, they do not degrade, as nature does not know how to handle this newly created material, and as a result it accumulates as a waste. Secondly, as the wear and tear goes on, very small molecules of plastic are formed, which are called as micro-plastic. This micro-plastic is less than 5mm in diameter or even lesser.
  • The plastic usage in the world is increasing day by day. Today, we are using 330 million tonnes of plastic every year, which is adding to the waste. Only a very small quantity is recycled, but a large amount of it ends up in the solid waste dumps or in the rivers or valleys and so on- as a result we find that these small particles enter into the food chain.
  • There is no corner of the earth left right from the Arctic to the Antarctic where plastic is not present in large quantities. In fact, in the Pacific, there is a large waste plastic island that has been formed which is interfering with the marine food chain. This is also reducing the yield of the fisheries and at the same time, affecting the well-being of the people and the livelihood. Plastics, after entering the food chain, can be a major health disruptor. It affects the endocrine system as well.

What are the real health hazards for humans as far as plastic is concerned?

  • Plastics can cause birth defects, genetic defects. It can also cause carcinoma of the stomach, lung problems such as chronic bronchitis, skin problems, eye problems like visual defects, deafness as well.
  • Further, it can cause even routine problems like coughing, watering from the eyes. Minimal exposure doesn’t cause much hazards but when we consume things in day to day life like the foods we eat that are packed in plastic containers, drinking water that is bottled in plastic bottles, it enters our food chain and gradually builds up in our bodies and causes problems.

How do we deal with the problem?

  • There are manifold ways in which this problem can be dealt with. Awareness is one of the biggest factors, which can play an extremely important role. Plastic waste management should be introduced in school curriculums, and school children need to be told about the adverse effects of plastic on their health. Secondly, recycling of plastic in India is very less.
  • It is only about 9-10%. To ensure that this is addressed, we need to give incentives to industries, and set up industries that focus on recycling of plastic. One thing we should not forget is that plastics which are less than 50microns, is manufactured by very small scale units. Thus, wiping out the plastic industry is not the solution; we need to look for an alternative to plastics which are biodegradable and which can be recycled. Further, there has to be an incentive given for recycling.
  • The other important fact to highlight here is the PWM (Plastic Waste Management) rules, which the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) introduced a few years ago. The rules have not been effective. We have to make rules which are implementable and which ensures that all the stakeholders are a part of it. As of now, the approach is from the top to the bottom.
  • Thus, one is trying to enforce a certain set of standards for all the plastic manufacturers. Instead, if the approach is bottom-up, where all the stakeholders are taken as part of the consultation process, and the rules are made to be more implementable, then this would be a step forward.
  • Further, the municipal bodies are required to register all plastic manufacturers. In Delhi, only a few plastic manufacturers of the thousands that are there, have registered. The municipal corporations don’t have any wherewithal to implement these rules.
  • But, if the people come forward, and there is active citizen participation, then implementation would happen. Apart from this, there are certain good examples as well, for example, in some of the hill stations like Shimla in Himachal Pradesh as well as in Kashmir, plastics have been banned. It has happened because of two reasons
    1. enforcement
    2. awareness

What steps has the government taken or what steps are the government going to take to deal with this particular problem?

  • When plastic was introduced as a polymer, it was considered as a panacea, which everyone got used to. In fact, in the early days, people used to say, “Use plastic and save trees”. But, later on it was released that our society should wean away from the use of plastic.
  • The first step in this direction is the ban on “single-use plastics”. For example, in marriages and parties, we see plastic spoons, plastic plates, etc. being thrown away after just a single use. It is this kind of plastic use which is causing a lot of problems. Secondly, multi-layer plastics, is difficult to recycle.
  • Thus, people’s awareness has to be built on these areas and it should become a mass movement. In India, in all the wildlife parks and sanctuaries, the government is making it plastic free. The reason being is that there would be further repercussions.
  • When it comes to taking plastic water bottles into sensitive areas such as wildlife parks and sanctuaries, an inventory would need to be made so that items taken into the park are taken out as well. The idea behind this is to not leave any plastics within the park.
  • The unfortunate thing with plastics is that it does not degenerate- you can’t burn it, you can’t bury it. In a limestone factory or in a cement industry, at a very high temperature, it can be co-processed with coal, and then one can extract energy from it. But apart from this, just burning it in the open air is the most dangerous thing to do.

How do we deal with the gigantic problem of plastics?

  • It is suggested that recycling of plastic is not the solution. In fact, it only multiplies the problem. This is because as we recycle, the quality of the plastic keeps on deteriorating, and after one or two recycles, the recycled plastic is of no use. In fact, India is one of the global recyclers.
  • We are one of the scavengers of global plastic. We are importing plastic and in the past, we have identified certain coastal belts of India as centres where plastic can be recycled. The important thing to note here is that the issue is not just about geographical segregation, because wherever it is, it ultimately ends up in the environment.
  • It is not a question of certain kinds of plastic bags which are the problem; plastic as a whole is a problem. Today even cosmetics and human parts are made up of plastic. Thus, small quantities of plastic are likely to end up even in our veins.
  • China is one of the largest importers of used plastic. Today, they are just not importing even a fraction of used plastic. They were one of the major importers of used plastic before.
  • Secondly, enough research has to be done where we are able to create a plastic wherein the monomers can be easily separated and they can be easily reassembled. If this is done, then recycling becomes very convenient and every time we get the best quality of plastic. Thus, a very serious research effort has to be made. Lastly, we need to scrutinize packaging very carefully. When we buy routine things for example shirts, etc.- the packaging is almost immediately discarded. Finding an alternative solution here is definitely possible.

What are the diseases one risks when exposed to plastic and ingesting plastic?

  • When we eat food in plastic containers, then the plastic, which breaks down into smaller particles, gets transferred to the food. When this gets transferred to the body, then the harmful effects start.
  • For example: skin rashes, bronchitis, eye problems such as watering from the eyes. In the long term one risks cancer, plus birth defects and genetic problems as well are risked. Thus, often it is told to not heat food in the plastic container even if it is declared as microwave safe. It is better to use glass containers as an alternative.

Is it time that we add a major lifestyle change so as to deal with the problem?

  • Definitely, people should discard the idea of using plastic and there should be awareness as people have to be told about the harmful effects of plastic- the effects on ecology, the environment and on their individual health.
  • A suggestion that the government can implement- much like how it has done so with the mandatory warning on cigarette packets, is that plastic bottles and plastic products should also have a warning. In many European countries, if water is sold in glass bottles, there is a tax incentive. Thus, there are many ways in which the government can promote non-plastic products. Further, people also have a role to play in committing to not use plastic.
  • The government can run a campaign saying, “No to Plastic”. If in the market, people are not buying plastic commodities, the message will also go to the industry. The industry will then look for alternatives.
  • The industry will also invest in researching for alternatives. Thus, this is a good method to push out the consumption of plastic. Through government regulations alone, it would be very difficult to push plastic out. This is because in many countries, the same has been experimented, but it hasn’t been successful. Having said this, the government can use plastic in road construction.
  • The government can use plastic to generate energy also which has been done successfully in some of the states of the USA. Thus, there are ways in which plastic can be used. Unfortunately, municipal corporations in India face a big issue. Most of the plastic waste reaches municipal dumps, and when it reaches the municipal dumps, in many ways, it degrades the land near the municipal dumps. For example, the drains near the municipal dumps get polluted with plastic. So, at the municipal level as well, the government should plan to intervene.

As far as the Ecosystem is concerned, what kind of an impact does plastic have on the ecosystem, especially forests and wildlife?

  • The ecosystem, forests and wildlife are all intricately and delicately linked with each other. So, when you protect a tiger, you are actually protecting the entire ecosystem. This is because, for the survival of one tiger, you would probably need around 500 or so Cheetals.
  • For that many Cheetals, you would need a specific amount of fodder, grassland, etc. For a specific amount of fodder and grassland, you would need a specific amount of moisture.
  • Plastic can get into the intestine of grass-eaters, it can choke the water supply. This can break the very delicately balanced ecosystem of flora and fauna. Since it doesn’t degrade, it remains in the ecosystem forever.
  • Thus, it is important to keep them off the pristine ecosystems. Even in the seas and the oceans, there is so much plastic that is getting into the marine ecosystem which is impacting everybody, including human beings. Thus, we need to wean out from the use of plastics. We should have an idea about the best practices of plastic waste management.

Are there any safe plastics which we can use? Or are plastics itself a complete no-no?

  • Although still a lot of work has to be done, there are good signs over the horizon. Today, new plastics have been formed which are made out of organic substances where on breaking, you will find that the molecules of which the plastic are made can be separated easily and they can be reassembled. These new developments are on the horizon, and we need to pick them up.
  • It is not yet cost effective. The governments need to provide money and support to push this research forward. When such plastics are produced in large quantities, then they would become cost-effective. But, since plastics are so dangerous, it is time that the United Nations and the governments of the world, should consider bringing out a convention like CFC’s such that we can globally stop this menace. It should not be that just one country becomes active and the rest can sleep. It is a global problem that needs a global convention and the time is now for such an implementation.
  • Further, by growing algae, one can attempt carbon-sequestration. When algae is processed, we can get biodegradable plastics. These plastics can easily be a substitute for present day plastics. In the long run, this can be made cost effective.

What is the impact of plastics on the waterways and the oceans?

  • Cows and buffaloes are the mainstay of our economy, i.e. the agricultural economy. The government is also focussed on improving milk production. Further, we see that in many parts of India, the deaths of cattle, because of plastic, is increasing. There was a recent report in one of the states in India, that 8-10kgs of plastic was found in the stomach of a cow.
  • Thus, it has become a major problem in domestic areas as well. A recent study said that about 60% of the plastic that gets into the oceans, is from South Asia.
  • Plastics choke the rivers and the waterways, thus plastic is a huge menace now which needs a revolutionary awareness program to control it. One has to create the sense that using plastics should be the last alternative and not the first one. This can happen because a large number of young people are aware about the ill impacts of plastic and they are willing to take an alternative if it is available.

The Way Ahead:

  • We should ourselves not accept food in plastic containers. We should cut down the use of plastics in our day-to-day life. It is important that we have a very vigorous public campaign to reduce plastic usage.
  • We should start this campaign from the schools and we should take it to colleges such that we use a multi-pronged attack. Further, law makers need to be exposed to the dangers of plastic. This is because no one can be spared from the dangers of plastic. Warming food in plastic containers, using plastics in microwaves, etc. is very dangerous. Using plastic bottles and keeping them in refrigerators is very dangerous.
  • Secondly, California as a state have put up warning signs on shirts which have got synthetic yarn in them to say that every wash releases so many microfibers which affect our bodies. We need to plunge into a campaign to fight against plastics.

Further Reading:
UPSC aspirants are advised to read the latest available press-releases available on the Press Information Bureau (PIB) website.  


Read more Gist of Rajya Sabha TV to help you ace current affairs in the IAS exam.

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