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Beating plastic pollution

The theme for this year’s World Environment Day on June 5 is #BeatingPlasticPollution. In 2018, when India was the host nation, the theme was the same. In the 50 years of Environment Day, themes, which have ranged from conscious consumption to protecting marine ecosystems, have overlapped quite a few times. But, there have been no explicit repeats. Why are we back where we were five years ago? The answer is the world’s failure to move meaningfully away from plastics. In short, beating plastic pollution remains the great white whale of environmental efforts.

The global production of plastics has risen almost 200 times in seven decades—the average male life expectancy. It was two million tonnes in 1950 and, in 2021, it had risen to more than 390 mt. And more than half of the total plastics over this period was produced and marketed only since 2000. Bear in mind, these figures are plastics industry submissions. If one were to include synthetic fibres, the total plastic production would be much higher.

Of the plastics produced so far since 1950, almost two-thirds ended up in the environment, including in landfills, while only just over a quarter is still in use, as per one estimate. Recycling, the most effective plastic-pollution solution, accounts for a mere 6-9% of the plastics produced so far.

The plastic pollution problem, though, is not merely one of waste, but also one of a massive carbon footprint—production and disposal of the material through incineration, the European Commission estimates, emits close to 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. For perspective, the annual energy savings from recycling all global plastic waste is pegged at an equivalent of 3.5 billion barrels of oil per year. With every year of our plastic addiction, the emission challenge will only worsen—the production, use and disposal of fossil-fuel-based plastics is forecast to reach 19% of the global carbon budget by 2040.

What is behind our addiction to plastics? There are, of course, many uses of the polymer and there is hardly any sector that is untouched by it. But, our problem largely is one of single-use plastics. Almost 50% of the plastics used can be clubbed under the head of packaging material; globally, the UNEP says, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute while a whopping five trillion plastic bags are used every year. The use-and-throw nature of many classes of plastic products—which never degrade and are only capable of becoming ever smaller particles—explains why beating plastic pollution has been such an insurmountable challenge. And, single-use plastics have a rather heavy carbon footprint, with 98% of these being produced from “virgin” feedstock, that is, from fossil fuels and not plastics already produced.

Pictures/videos of giant plastic islands in the oceans, turtles and seal-pups choking on six-pack yokes, and cattle with plastic bags in their rumen may stir us enough to vehemently demand action every now and then, but there are even deadlier consequences that we have become aware of only lately. Micro and nanoplastics, fragments that the naked eye can’t see, have now permeated almost every sphere of our habitats, and are now part of the planet’s fossil record, marking the Anthropocene, the age of humans.

Our agriculture is 4-23 times more likelier to be contaminated by microplastics than our oceans. Microplastics are entering our body through food, drinking water, through the air we breathe, and even our skin. They are being detected in our lungs, livers and other key organs. Such is the exposure that it is likely to become congenital—a study showed presence in the placenta. The health effects are yet unknown, but there is evidence of chemicals linked to plastics causing severe health concerns.

None of this would be news to most. And yet, we seem to be resigned to a presumed inevitability of plastic pollution, outside our bodies and within. Indeed, by 2050, we are expected to produce almost 4 times the plastics we do today. And going by the scenario today, the OECD projects, plastic waste will almost triple by 2060, with half of all plastic waste still ending up in landfills and less than a fifth recycled.


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