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Is there a way to respond to the plastics pandemic?


Is there a way to respond to the plastics pandemic?

There is one manufactured material that you can find in the earth, the air, and in the deepest ocean trenches. It is so durable that most of what has been created is still in our ecosystems. It is, of course, plastic — tough, flexible, durable, impervious to corrosion, yet endlessly versatile.

The conveniences plastics offer and that too at a low price have led to a throw-away culture. Today, single-use plastics account for 40 percent of the plastics produced yearly. Many of these products, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, small formats, and sachets, have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours. They often end up in dustbins if disposed of properly; otherwise, they languish for hundreds of years in our natural world. High concentrations of plastic materials, particularly plastic bags, have blocked hundreds of different species' breathing passages and stomachs. Plastic bags in the ocean resemble jellyfish and are often ingested by turtles and dolphins who mistake them for food.

The global commitments against single-use plastics underline a general sentiment to act against plastic pollution. To tackle the plastic pollution problem, countries like India have already started implementing measures that address single-use plastic items and have introduced bans or charges. This is because no other plastic application represents the problem of plastic pollution as much as single-use plastics (SUPs) do, as they are the most common type of plastics produced and, at the same time, the most littered in the environment.

Plastic packaging – A growing menace

Did you know, a staggering 40 percent of plastic waste is discarded packaging?

Plastic packaging sent to landfills does not degrade quickly or, in some cases, at all. Chemicals from the packaging materials, including inks and dyes from labeling, can leach into groundwater and soil. As a result, plastics have entered our food chains and are found in human blood as well.

Almost all food that we buy, mainly processed food, comes packaged. Whether it comes from a grocery store or market, a sit-down or fast-food restaurant, an online meal delivery service, or even the farmers' market - it is hard to find food that isn't artificially encased.

Modern food packaging provides a way to make food safe, reliable, shelf-stable, and clean. Unfortunately, most food packaging is designed to be single-use and is typically thrown away rather than reused or recycled. Microplastics have already been found in common table salt and both tap and bottled water. Several studies have also shown that the toxins in Styrofoam containers can transfer to food and drinks, and this risk seems to be accentuated when people reheat the food while still in the container.

Policy talk: Mitigating and preventing plastic pollution

The scale of the challenge also spurred world leaders to call for a globally binding treaty calling for a plastic pollution-free future. Earlier this year, the fifth session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA 5) made history when representatives from the UN Member States adopted a resolution to forge a legally binding global treaty to tackle plastic pollution and transition into a circular plastics economy. This treaty will help address the discharge of plastics into the environment by covering all stages of the plastic life cycle, further ensuring the world deals with the root causes of plastic pollution, not just the symptoms.

The Indian government notified the Plastic Waste Management (PWM) rules in 2016 and its subsequent amendments, which mention improved waste management through a successful framework called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to address this crisis on a systemic level and reduce the cost that plastic imposes on society.

Changing habits to do away with plastics

While it may be hard to find unpackaged food, plenty of opportunities exist. One can choose packaging that is less harmful to animals, people, and the environment.

Adopting more sustainable methods is possible if we opt for cloth bags instead of plastic bags; responsibly disposing of the plastic packaging and segregating wastes into dry and wet are small steps with high results if practiced on a large scale. We should focus on resource efficiency to minimize plastic waste through greater reuse, refill and repair systems – not relying on recycling as the savior.

Shifting markets – A promising start

Over the years, plastic usage has grown inexorably from its humble beginnings. However, today, the market is growing a conscience. With plastic bans imposed across various cities and growing awareness, people are more accepting of replacing single-use plastics with more sustainable, environmentally-friendly alternatives.

Nevertheless, to tackle the roots of the problem, governments need to improve waste management practices and introduce research and development of alternative materials, raise awareness among consumers, fund innovation, and ensure strong policies that push for a more circular model of design and production of plastics that takes into account the short life of disposable packaging, and a reduction in the manufacturing of unnecessary and problematic plastic items.

Policies such as Extended Producers Responsibility should serve as a vehicle to unlock innovation, investment, and practical action that supports government ambition through corporate action going beyond compliance through ambitious commitments.

To make an impactful system change, collaborative sector-wide action is the need of the hour. Consumers have a huge role in consuming and managing their waste responsibly. Reducing one's plastic footprint is vital. While it can be a challenge, it is definitely worth the effort. Even with the ability to unmake all types of plastic so they can be reused again, it is unlikely to make all of the problems with plastic pollution go away. With so much ending up in landfills and the environment, plastic will continue doing what it was made to do – endure. Let's use our collective voices and alter behaviors to turn the tide of plastic pollution. Maybe then we'll read stories about pristine beaches and happy turtles.

Authored by: Mahashweta Mukherjee