Would you like to wear clothes that become smelly and look awful within a few days but cannot be destroyed ? No. Then why have we let our country be clothed with this plastic ?. India’s citizens did perfectly well till 1983 which is when plastic bags entered our system. Now it overflows in dustbins, flies in the streets, blocks sewage lines, floats in lakes, pollutes drinking water resources, blocks the soil and destroys the entire eco-system . The growth of the plastic industry is higher in India than elsewhere in the world. Packaging covers about 52% of the total plastic generated in the country - about 36.5 million tonnes per year.
Our whole world seems to be wrapped in plastic. Every product we buy, the food we eat and many of the liquids we drink . Thousands of cows die daily from eating it, fish choke from ingesting it, insects are drowned beneath it. Every village is saturated . When the DM of Pilibhit declared that no plastic would be sold in Pilibhit – within a week the smell disappeared, the drains unclogged and stopped flooding the streets , the town looked fresh and smelt sweet, everybody looked happier. Then the DM changed and the plastic came back.
The major environment problem is that it lasts forever. Nature does not know how to break down this synthetic material. Bio-degradation is the process by which living organisms convert material into biomass. Plastic does not biodegrade because its molecules are too large and too tightly bonded together to be broken apart and assimilated by decomposer organisms. A regular polyethylene film has an approximate molecular weight of around 300,000 compared with Carbon Dioxide (44) and Water (18).
There are serious problems associated with the disposal of all plastic. If it is buried (landfills are now the main way of getting rid of it) there is a release of toxins into the ground water. If you burn it, there is a release of deadly carcinogenic gases into the atmosphere. Even the creation of plastic has a process that releases benzene, a carcinogen, into the environment.
The second major problem is that traditional plastics are manufactured from non-renewable resources – oil, coal and natural gas all of which are becoming more expensive. 75% of the coal consumed in India is utilized for power generation. Coal production will plateau in the next 10 years, and reserves will last another 40 years. The oil and gas reserves also will endure for another 20 years but look how the prices rise every week. In such a scenario, it is foolish not to switch to renewables.
What use is a plastic ? To act as a film or a barrier through which moisture cannot get through but oxygen can. Do alternatives exist ? Absolutely. Biodegradable plastics exist with the same properties of toughness and flexibility , based on natural polymers derived from wheat or corn starch which have molecules that are easily broken down by microbes.
Starch is a natural polymer. Cereal plants and tubers contain lots of starch First, starch is harvested from corn, wheat or potatoes, then microorganisms transform it into lactic acid. Lactic acid is chemically treated to cause its molecules to link up into long chains or polymers, which bond together to form a plastic called polylactide (PLA). Another way of making biodegradable polymers involves getting bacteria to produce a plastic called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA)inside their cells. Bacteria are simply grown in laboratories and the plastic is then harvested.. The plastic degrades totally over a period of time turning into Carbon Dioxide, Water, and biomass. There is no harmful residue . PLA has been commercially available since 1990 and been used in medical implants, sutures , drug delivery systems ,and disposable nappies. Both ‘film’ and ‘injection moulded’ products from plastic wrapping, shopping bags, bread bags to plant pots are being used . Farmers lay black plastic over the ground around crops, to control weed growth and retain moisture. These are thrown away after the harvest . Biodegradable plastic performs just as well and can simply be ploughed into the ground after harvest enriching the soil with carbon. biodegradable plastic plant pots can be planted directly into the ground. The pots will break down to carbon dioxide and water, eliminating repeated work and the discarded conventional plastic bags.
Environmental economics is about recognizing true costs. PHA and PLA have been on the market for 10 years but the plastics lobby will not let either of these environmentally friendly packaging materials gain headway.They keep repeating that they are more expensive than normal plastic. What is their vested interest ? Plastic is a product of the petrochemical industry and if the market stops plastic , they will suffer losses in trying to finding ways to dump this waste material. That is why every ban faces opposition from lobby groups who use the media.
In actual fact PHA and PLA are much cheaper both for the individual and India. The individual is paying now for clogged drains, polluted water and food, the total breakdown of the city, the use of valuable land in landfills ( after all one billion bags are used every day), the lessening of the earth’s productivity, the high prices of oil imports, the diseases that come with the gases of burning plastic. EACH bag that comes free with his purchase actually costs him between Rs 25-30 rupees in terms of visits to the hospital, medicines, more expensive food and water. He pays for its collection by the city and the dumping vans. When his colony becomes too filthy he becomes restless to move out and has to earn more so he pays in stress and in visual discomfort. The PHA/PLA bag would cost only Rs 2.50 and he could use it again and again so that its costs came down. It would teach him to save rather than throw away – as people did till 1983.
Biodegradable plastics can be composted . Instead of throwing organic waste mixed with plastic into landfills , it is now possible to set up large-scale composting lines in which packaging and the material it contains can be composted as one. The resulting compost goes into growing plants which grow the starch to produce more biodegradable plastics. A perfect loop!
For anyone who thinks such schemes aren’t feasible, look at the recycling success of the Sydney Olympics. More than 660 tonnes of waste was generated each day . 76 % was collected and recycled – because biodegradable plastics were used in the packaging of fast food, the packaging did not have to be separated before processing the food waste.
One state government needs to say that they will not allow plastic any more and to bring in biodegradable plastic into the market, perhaps with tax reliefs to begin with. This will find its own economic footing quickly. Until now , the job of changing market demand has been left to the ineffectual pleadings of NGOs – use jute, use recycled paper bags. This will never work.
The European Union has placed a deadline of the end of 2005 in which each member country will have to recycle 50-65% of its products. So biodegradable plastic companies are doing very well. Let’s make the leap before we destroy ourselves completely.