Plastics: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

‘Plastic’ comes from the Greek word ‘plastikus’ which means anything moldable. Plastics account for 30% of the waste by volume and are a major threat to the environment. Highly toxic and non-biodegradable, they can be got rid of only by burning-which itself releases toxic fumes. Toxins from plastic bags leach against the soil making it barren. Dioxins released from plastic bags in garbage dumps and landfill sites contaminate water and may even lead to cancer.

Based on their long life, plastic products can be divided into three categories. 60% of plastic products have a long lifespan as they are in use for years. Used in radios, TV sets, cars, blood transfusion sets, plastic panels, pipes, furniture, boxes, crates, buckets, water tanks, crockery, suitcases, etc., these articles stay in use for decades and even lifetimes. This 60% can, in fact, be considered pro-environment as it saves forests and other natural resources. These plastics can be re-molded into new items that can last for decades more.

The second category of plastics(22%) needs monitoring as they last for a week to three months only. These are items like detergent and shampoo bottles, jars for cosmetics, oil and ghee, congestive tubes, etc.

However, the ugliest of all plastic products are the small, thin, colored plastic carry bags available at vegetable, fruit, meat, sweets and medical shops. They have zero re-usability. Most of them find their way into and block open sewers, adding to the proliferation of mosquitoes, flies, and bacteria. Since they have little recycling value and are very light, rag pickers tend to ignore them. As a result, cows and other animals that feed on garbage dumps often choke to death when they swallow plastic bags. Similarly, plastic bags disposed in the seas and on beaches are fatal to marine life. The indiscriminate use of plastic has even damaged the ecology of the Himalayas. Even the route to Mount Everest is degraded.

In Delhi, organizations like ‘Vatavaran’ have started community waste management schemes. Under the scheme, Vatavaran workers collect garbage from household in tri-cycle rickshaws. The garbage is then segregated into compost-able and recyclables. The compost-able waste is converted into manure and recyclable material like plastic is sent for recycling. Another Delhi based NGO, ‘Srishti’, has also undertaken similar initiatives while ‘Exnora’, a group in Chennai, has taken upon itself the task of raising awareness about cleanliness in slums. India is all set to introduce a color code for plastic carry bags and restrictions on recycling them beyond a certain limit. Also, hotels, catering houses and fast food outlets will have to ensure that the plastic used for packaging conforms to the specifications and standards laid down by the Bureau of Indian Standards.

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