Plastic is so cheap and durable that it’s used to manufacture almost everything. Look around you, and you will find that plastic has become an integral part of our lives.
What makes plastic dangerous is that it’s not easily degradable. That's why it’s littered everywhere. Plastic debris is found in parks, landfills, streets, lakes, forests and oceans. And it has started killing animals too. Deer and elephants in the wildlife sanctuaries, camels and other mammals have died after eating plastic bags. Humans too must be ingesting plastic in some form.
All that hasn’t stopped our love affair with plastic. Its production is expected to double over the next 20 years. Globally, governments and people should act now to rein in plastic usage before it spins out of control.
Dubai last week took measures to reduce residents’ dependence on plastic: A levy on single-use plastic bags was followed by the Dubai Can initiative, which encourages residents to use refillable water bottles instead of buying water in plastic bottles.
These two moves aim to reduce the reliance on plastic and are part of Dubai’s efforts to help people embrace a sustainable way of life.
Here’s a look at plastic’s origins and encroachment into our lives. We also look at global efforts to cut out plastic from our lives.
We have a responsibility to reduce plastic usage
Alex Abraham, Senior Associate Editor
A casual look around our workstations is enough to tell us how much we rely on plastic every day. From pens and keyboards to files and chairs, everything has plastic in some form or other. We never gave much thought to this a few decades ago — plastic just made life a whole lot easier.
Over the years, awareness about plastic and its impact on the environment and life has made us think and act. We are constantly reminded of the need to reduce, reuse and recycle. This was taught to children in school, and we tried to implement it in our lives.
But like many other initiatives, we found out that a desire to protect the environment and a willingness to do so were two different things. For example, take the case of carrying water bottles. We encourage our children to carry water bottles to school or the park. But how many of us carry them to our workplaces? Why can’t we do our bit for the environment by starting with small decisions? Taking a water bottle to the office may seem odd for the first few days, but think of the benefits.
Dubai’s new drive to install water dispensers in key areas of the city is a great initiative, but it needs the cooperation of the people to make it work.
Another area where all of us can contribute is shopping, especially when buying groceries. Loading up the trolley with dozens of plastic bags should be a thing of the past. Jute bags are available in all major supermarkets, and an effort must be made to use them well.
Plastic has many uses, and it will be wise not to abuse it. Taking baby steps to limit plastic usage in everyday life will go a long way in keeping the environment clean and safe for future generations.
Reducing plastic use is the only viable option
Biju Mathew, Online Editor
Plastic’s transformation from a cheap and reliable consumer solution to a monster beyond belief was quick. The main culprit in this change was human behaviour of use and throw with scant regard for nature and the damage it causes.
The world produces more than 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. It is impossible to recycle all of it. Less than 10 per cent of all the plastic made so far has been recycled, mainly because it is too costly to collect and sort. The rest is dumped or buried in landfills or burned.
“We won’t be able to just recycle or reduce our way out of it,” said Rob Kaplan, CEO of Circulate Capital, in a Reuters report.
More than 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic has been produced since the 1950s. Global plastic production skyrocketed from 50 million metric tonnes in the 1950s to 365 million in 2020, according to Statista. Out of that, 60 per cent has ended up in landfills. Sadly, we still don’t know how long it takes for plastic to decompose.
The next best and probably the only option is to reduce production and cut the use of plastic.
Dangers of using plastic without restraint
Plastic is all around you. It has crept into every aspect of consumer society, from bags to slippers to even toiletries. The concept of reuse, which glass bottles provided, slowly faded, and the use-and-discard fad came along. According to reports, in the US, prior to 1950, reusable packaging had a nearly 96 per cent return rate. By the 70s, the rate for all container returns had dropped below 5 per cent.
Along with that drastic consumer behaviour came the environmental damage.
■ Every year, about 8 million tonnes of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations. That’s the equivalent of setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline around the world.
■ A report by WWF and Dalberg has revealed that the societal cost of plastic pollution could hit $7.1 trillion by 2040 if urgent action is not taken.
■ Plastics often contain additives making them stronger, more flexible, and durable. But many of these additives can extend the life of products if they become litter, with some estimates ranging to at least 400 years to break down.
How plastic affects living beings
Plastic in its myriad forms seeps into the environment as macro or microplastics, contaminating the food chain and water supply. The toxic impact is yet to be thoroughly evaluated, but researchers point to its deadly impact on living organisms. Microplastics entering the human body through ingestion or inhalation can lead to inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis. That results in cancer, cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic inflammation, auto-immune conditions, neurodegenerative diseases, and stroke.
What we can do to cut plastic pollution
Jaya Chandran, Online Editor
Plastic is so integral to our everyday life that anyone initiating a discussion on reducing its use is asked to provide its alternatives. The fact is there is no real universal replacement for plastic. We use it in almost all spheres of activity, from grocery carry bags to aircraft enclosures. It is so convenient and has made our lives simpler than ever. However, we can adopt specific lifestyle changes and alternatives to help reduce its use, thereby trimming its demand. Reduce, reuse and replace is the mantra when fighting plastic catastrophe on a personal level.
Some of the practices we can adopt are:
■ Say no to single-use plastic
■ Use own cloth bags for grocery shopping
■ Stop buying drinking water or any other beverages in plastic bottles
■ Discourage the use of plastic cups for soft drinks, coffee or tea in outlets. Insist on glass or ceramic mugs. Bring your cup or thermal flask, if you must. These are heavier but easy on the environment.
■ Choose cardboard or paper bags over plastic bags and bottles
■ Buy bread from outlets where they pack it in paper bags
■ Shop items with little or no plastic packaging whenever possible
■ Bring your own containers to restaurants to pack leftover food
■ Pack your lunches in reusable containers.
■ Make your storage containers plastic-free. Store all your food items in glass containers. Clean and reuse glass containers whenever you purchase one.
■ Buy coffee in bulk, food items in paper bags or cans, or bring your own bags/containers.
■ Plastic straws are a major pollutant. And they are single-use products. Say no straws when ordering drinks.
■ Over 50 per cent of facewash and scrubs contain microplastics. Identify and stop using them.
■ Beware of the ‘disposable’ trend. These include a range of products, from shaving razors to disposable diapers. Switch to regular ones
Best practices to minimise plastic dependence
Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor
The most effective way to reduce plastic pollution is to stop creating plastic. But that’s not possible soon, because plastics are found in everything from toothbrushes and face washes to utensils. So let’s look at ways to reduce our dependence on plastic. One of the popular methods is to reuse and recycle plastic items.
Here are some of the ways advocated by Plastic Smart Cities, a WWF initiative to reduce plastic leakage into nature by 30 per cent in the near term and achieve no plastics in nature by 2030.
1. Financial incentives
■ Rewards for recycling and charges are effective. Direct incentives can be vouchers, while tariffs like the levy on single-use plastic will deter the use of plastic.
■ Deposit refund schemes will persuade people to return plastic bottles and containers to shops, aiding recycling.
■ Prevention of plastic waste is possible by altering the attitudes and behaviour of individuals and businesses. Awareness programmes and youth-led initiatives help, while bans and levies on single-use plastics will force firms to change packaging, preventing plastic from reaching the consumer.
■ Providing plastic-free drinking water through public taps or faucets like the Dubai Can initiative prevents people from buying bottled water. Instead, they will carry reusable water bottles.
■ Plastic-free alternatives, edible packaging and reusable items will go a long way in minimising the use of plastic in daily life.
3. Waste collection
■ Sound waste management systems can reduce plastic in garbage. A municipal collection system with pickup points or door-to-door collection is ideal.
■ The inclusion of residents and workers in waste management schemes will allow the segregation of plastic and other items at the source. Incentives will make it better.
■ NGOs and other organisations can launch periodic campaigns to collect plastic and other waste from public areas.
■ Litter traps can prevent plastic from reaching water bodies.
4. Reusing products
■ Reusing plastic products and materials help extend their lifecycles and reduce wastage.
■ Innovative reuse models like glass or steel bottles, cloth or jute shopping bags, plastic-free dental care alternatives and plastic-free packaging reduce plastic pollution and save costs.
5. Recycling plastic
■ Since only 14 per cent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, increasing plastic collection rates will enhance recycling.
■ Developing local recycling infrastructure and second use markets can cut wastage.
■ Disposal is the last option for materials that cannot be reused or recycled. So a good waste management system is essential to reduce economic impact and environmental damage.