The word “plastic” derives from the Greek πλαστικός (plastikos) meaning “capable of being shaped or molded”. Given Plastics’ great applicability and transformative contribution to a post-1950s, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call the modern age as Plastics age. We use plastic in every possible way from making an Aircraft, Drinking Straw, Sieve, Toys, Basket, Automobile and you name whatnot.
Plastics’ flexibility, lightness, adaptability to high and low temperatures, inertness, and its long polymeric chains’ innovativeness to bend and bond have let this group of raw materials insert itself as a pen’s body to rocket nozzle, delicate food and fresh flowers packaging to car bumpers, sanitary pads to milk packets.
Despite all these qualities plastics pollution is talk of the planet. Here I would briefly discuss :
1) Environmental footprint of plastics alternatives, aluminium, glass and paper as compared to plastics,
2) a few benefits of using plastics
3) implementation gap of Indian government’s mostly well thought out Plastic Waste Management Notification(PWM 2016 & 2018 ).
In this era its seems really challenging to live and dream life support without plastic.
- Paper most unsustainable :
In a work University of Limerick calculated their annual 50,000 reams of A4 papers ( 125 tons/year ) requires 3000 trees ! This would require 412 hectares of land, 905,000 Kwh of energy and 565 tons of “embodied” CO2 released.
This author’s “Paper vs Plastic1 concluded that paper processing requires 1600 Kwh/ton as compared to plastics’ 400 Kwh/ton. According to European paper group , CEPI’s 2009 report of 2009 world lost 18.3 million hectares of forest to produce 390.9 Million tons of paper. UNESCO-IHE 2010 reported that for each 1m3 of pulp/paper 214 to 1081 m3 of “Green” water is used over the growth period of 5-20 years, depending on the type of tree ! Paperboard consumes 1221 m3 of water per ton of paper in Netherlands. Recycled paper uses more water, besides chemicals like epoxy resins or chlorine and energy required.Limited reuse, strength, vulnerability to wear and tear, water makes paper an unsuitable alternative to plastics.
These numbers and facts demolish the myth of paper, especially recycled paper being “eco-friendly”. Industries and governments should notice and mull over these myths, especially in view of the recent IPCC 1.5 report ( October 2018), wherein the Climate change body has reiterated that increased density of trees and forests in countries like China and India can act as major carbon sinks, even as Amazon forest is beginning to be cut down for ” agroforestry”.
Aluminium and Glass: According to International Journal of lifecycle assessment study ( image below)on global warming potential of beverage bottles ( second most widely used plastics fall in this segment ), a glass bottle of 750 ml has much larger environmental footprint for energy ( making, recycling, transporting, breakage, weight/unit, waste management ) and water (washing) than a 330 ml can and 500ml and 2 later PET plastic bottles. PET plastic bottle of 2 litres has the least footprint and least environmental damage.
Notice the difference in volume of content packaged by each container ( 750 ml for Glass to 330 ml of Aluminium can and 2 litres of PET bottle).
According to a detailed study in 2016 by American Chemistry Council and TruCost ( image below) , the environmental cost of using alternatives to plastics to society and economy is almost four times that of non degradable plastics.
Sustainable (Biodegradable) plastics made using the same fossil fuel with added organic chemicals impact is estimated to be almost 5.5 times! Bioplastics made with starch/PLA from plant food sources like sugarcane, corn, tapioca, potato peel is less sustainable vis a vis non-degradable plastics and biodegradable plastics, due to Bioplastics large “Green water footprint” (water used during the growth of the tree) and “grey water footprint”( water used in manufacturing).
The terms Bioplastics ( made of starch/PLA from plant food sources )
should not be confused with Biodegradable
plastics ( made using fossil fuels ) with added
organic chemicals is a big source of confusion across the world, specially in India.
The cost of alternatives to plastics is calculated in the same study as USD 7 Billion versus Plastics USD 5 Billion. Dissolving any organic materials like paper/cardboard/starch in river/ocean water contaminate it and increases the biological oxygen demand thus endangering life forms in water. It also results in algal growth, which further aggravates the problems in our water sources as we see in the river Ganges.
Benefits of plastics in Agriculture, Food and Women’s health Sectors: Agriculture has the highest water footprint (72% 2) amongst all activities in the world. Apart from animal products like milk and meat, cereals, fruits, and vegetables have the highest environmental footprint.
According to a report ” Potential of plasticulture in India ( May 2016 , FICCI) agriculture mulch film would save 40-60% of water and increase fertiliser use efficiency by 20-25% and Greenhouse net can save 60-85% water and increase fertiliser use efficiency by 30-35% saving lakhs of crores of rupees and almost 50% water in India. Since fertilisers use imported gas it can save approximately 20% of the gas bill of India by a conservative estimate. There are other applications like 1) Crop cover that saves a lot of fruits and vegetables and reduces the use of pesticides, fungicide, biocides, thus making the vegetables less toxic for consumption ( Body Burden 2015 Down to Earth)
India wastes 40% of its fruits and vegetables ( FAO and ENVIS reports). All these are post harvest fresh fruits waste due to lack of storage and transportation sector. Plastic packaging for raw produce protects it from natural elements and attacks from microbes. Modified air packaging ( MAP ) is used for protecting fresh as well as processed food.
The white milk revolution and golden revolution would not have been possible without plastics.India is number one producer of milk in the world and number 3 in edible oil, still it ranks 100 out of 118 in world hunger index ! 194 million people goes hungry everyday and 21 million tons of food is wasted. If this is not a colossal waste of water, land and energy , what else is ? Below are a few usage of plastics , which underlines the need to use plastics for food. Biodegradable plastics would be a step further for waste, which cannot be recycled.
3. Sanitary pads:
Millions of Indian women suffer from health issues due to non usage of hygienic solutions during menstruation. Sanitary pads adoption at large scale is only possible with plastics ! Though there have been attempts at making bio sourced banana peel in Uganda its scalability is in doubt due to large environmental footprint needed. As the used sanitary pads is a biologically contaminated waste and cannot be recycled, India should mandate only biodegradable sanitary pads, besides other biomedical waste made of plastics , which cannot be incinerated.
4. Gap in Implementation of Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016.
The rules framed in 2016 reflected forward thinking but ownership by states and municipalities have been abysmal. Local governments have implemented draconian bans, without giving time to citizens and industries to adapt.The lack of direction and dilution of the rules in April 2018 amendments from the central government is hugely responsible. Author’s repeated attempt at providing simple solutions to MoEFCC has not borne fruits.
PWM 2016 makes municipalities and local government responsible for recycling and managing waste with funding from industry and waste generators. its a great idea to set up recycling infrastructure but Maharastra government wanted to put the onus on the plastics . packaging and FMCG industries. The result is for all to see. Delhi , which started the plastic waste drive in 1999 is full of non degradable plastics PE and PP bags , photodegradable bags which have been banned by PWM 2016 and NGT. Lakhs of workers are unemployed.
The simple solutions are
1) Phasing out single use plastics like Carry bags, PET bottles , cutlery and thermocol step by step by allowing alternatives to come up within say 5 years time ,
2) Allowing all NABL labs to test plastics for biodegradability on all 9 standards in the act ( only CIPET, Chennai and it can test only 5 samples simultaneously for 8-9 months* is allowed),
3) Allowing all 9 methods of biodegradability for all types of plastics, letting best technologies to evolve and compete ( focus in present is just on starch bags, although tertiary industrial packaging, food packaging like milk, agriculture plastics contributes almost 40% of plastic waste ).
We need to save our planet before its too late be it water, soil or air.
The challenge in management of plastic waste is not the plastic, but building of an infrastructure, waste management systems and behavioural change of citizens in India, which no government is presently willing to implement. Looking at and acting for plastic waste as part of solid waste and as an opportunity for ecological and economic goldmine would definitely transform the “waste to wealth” slogan into groundbreaking results.
1) Which is more sustainable: Paper or Plastic ; Sustainability outlook Nov 18th, 2010, Pranay Kumar
2) Water Footprint: AY Hoekstra, 2012 UNESCO-IHE
Other sources: Plastics and Sustainability American Chemistry Council & TruCost July 2016
Busting the myths around biodegradable plastics; Pharma Express , April 22, 2015
* RTI reply of CPCB ( file : 17011/7/PWM2016)