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PLASTIC OR EARTH?

By Dameshwa M. Warjri

If plastic had been invented during the time of our forefathers – long before Tirot Sing, Kiang Nongbah or Pa-Togan Nengminza Sangma were even born, their ‘Kwai’ (betel nut)& ‘duma’(tobacco) wrappers would likely still be around, hundreds of years later. If it were so and if our forefathers had been like many people today and simply tossed their empty bottles and wrappers over the side, our rivers and hills would be gift wrapped with plastic trash.

Plastic was not invented until the late 19th century, and production really only took off around 1950 and we have a mere 9.2 billion tons of the stuff to deal with! Of that, more than 6.9 billion tonnes have become waste. And of that waste, a staggering 6.3 billion tons never made it to a recycling bin—a figure that stunned the scientists who crunched the figures in 2017.

We are not aware of what mess we have created with plastic. No one knows how much non-recycled plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the earth’s last sink or dumpster. Ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by it. At a global summit in Nairobi, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme spoke of an “ocean Armageddon.” And yet there’s a key difference: plastic is not as complicated as climate change.

After Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared from radar screens in March 2014 while on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the search for it extended from Indonesia to the southern Indian Ocean. It captivated a global audience for weeks. No sign of the wreckage appeared. On several occasions, when satellite images revealed collections of objects floating on the sea surface, hopes soared that they would turn out to be aircraft parts. They weren’t. It was all trash—pieces of broken shipping containers, abandoned fishing gear, and plastic shopping bags.

Since the invention of plastic, the global economy has sky-rocketed. Production is on full scale and markets flourished— from polythene bags, plastic chairs. Now a portion of everything has plastic. UN estimates, every year the world uses 500 billion plastic bags. Half of the total plastic used is single-use or disposable items such as grocery bags, cutlery and straws. In India, 70 percent of total plastic consumption is discarded as waste. Around 5.6 million tonnes per annum of plastic waste is generated in our country, which is about 15,342 tonnes per day. So what happens to the discarded plastic? With only 30 percent of our plastics recyclable the rest 70 percent is sent to land-fills and in places where proper disposal of waste is not feasible. The waste is just dismissed off to rivers and streams whereas in coastal areas, they are dumped into the sea.

If we look at this issue in our very own state, we will find that plastic has become a nuisance. The quantum of plastic waste generated daily is on the rise but there are no proper facilities to dispose of discarded plastic products and its waste. We have grown up in a decade where plastic bags are provided at every place we shop and we even expect them to provide it, but this small act of asking and using a plastic bag contributes to the promotion of plastic production. Another form of plastic that is of one-time use is packaged drinking water bottles; once used, it is disposed off. With lack of civic sense and proper disposal, where do they end up? A high percentage reaches the rivers, streams, forests and landfills. Let’s not be blind to the fact that our rivers and streams in the city are turning into sewers. We may say that landfills are our answer but merely covering plastic waste with a layer of dirt does not resolve the issue. It just creates another problem— soil degradation. With plastic taking over 450 years to decompose, our great, great grandchildren will still be able to see the mess we have created now.

Plastic is a revolutionary invention, it has made life much easier and because of plastic, we are able to have proper and safe package of everyday goods like medicine, food and other day-to-day products. Until scientific advancement in this field has found a better substitute for plastic, we cannot stop using it. The only thing we can do is to restrict its use only for packaging indispensable commodities like medicine and other goods.

Not all hope is lost to reverse the plague caused by plastic. Many ongoing researches point to biodegradable plastic. Another breakthrough is spurred by the discovery of plastic-eating bugs at a Japanese dump. Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles – by accident. The new research of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic is produced by a bug. With ongoing research and study, it will take another decade or so to see visible results.

We have the power to decide what will happen to this planet, and we are to be blamed for what will happen to it as well. It is either our planet or plastic. We cannot depend only on scientists and the government to change the world. We can play a small part in shaping a better tomorrow. Carrying a water bottle instead of buying packaged water, using a bag or even a ‘muna-dong’ instead of accepting polythene bags while shopping. These small things done by one person will not make any difference but when integrated with the efforts of many, will create a new freedom movement, a movement for a plastic free environment.

 

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