Ever since 1974, June 5th is celebrated as World Environment Day (WED) every year. Coming at the heels of the awakening generated by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the day is meant to promote awareness and conservation of the environment on a global scale. On this day, there are scores of programs run by government agencies and corporates that highlight the need to safeguard the flora and fauna of this blue planet. The approach to WED is largely thematic, with a principal theme directing the course of activities. Last year it was 'Connecting People to Nature', in 2016 it was 'Go wild for life' and in 2015 the theme was 'Consume with Care'.
Just like a theme, every year there is a host country that takes a lead in celebrating the day. In 2017 it was Canada, in 2016 it was Angola and in 2015, it was Italy.
This year, the theme of WED is to 'Beat Plastic Pollution'. And there is a special India connect as well. We are the host for the event, thus the world is looking at us to throw some light on how to deal with plastic pollution.
Plastic is an essential part of our modern lives, finding place in almost every aspect of our living. Yet over the years due to indiscriminate usage (especially of single-use or disposable plastics) it has turned into an ecological catastrophe. The issue is not how plastic has made our lives easy and convenient, but rather how the disposal has created a havoc for the environment, be it on land or at the ocean-level.
The Big Plastic Binge
According to WED website, over 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute across the globe. Whereas, some 5 trillion disposable plastic bags are produced yearly, the kind of we get from the vegetable vendors or from the supermarkets. That's 160,000 plastic bags a second! If all these bags were to be placed one after the other, they could encircle our earth more than 7 times.
These bags are made from crude oil that has been extracted from the ground and are deemed to be toxic over a period of time. Yet, there is usage is fairly brief. Typically, a single-use plastic bag is used for an average of 12 minutes, after which it is generally discarded. Considering that only 3% of plastic bags are recycled worldwide, a whopping 97% will either end up in a land-fill or pollute the water-bodies like rivers, lakes or oceans. Since plastic bags don't readily decompose, they will remain in the environment for 500-1000 years before breaking up into micro pieces and dissipating away. The problem has only exacerbated because 50% of the plastic that we use is the disposable one.
Unlike the common belief, plastic also decomposes, though not fully and it takes a very long time (over 100 to 500 years). The issue is that commercially available plastics (polyolefins like polyethylene, polypropylene, etc.) have been further made resistant to decomposition by means of additional stabilizers like antioxidants.
Worrying for India Too
And not only globally, plastic pollution is developing into a big issue in India as well. Plastic waste makes up the second-largest share of urban waste in India, behind only hazardous waste. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), a statutory organization that keeps an eye on pollution, said in its 2015 report that as many as 60 tier-I and tier-II Indian cities roughly accounted for the generation of 4,059 tonnes of plastic waste per day. And a pan India figure for this went up to 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste every day. At 689.52 tonnes a day, Delhi generated the maximum amount of plastic waste in the country, followed by Chennai (429.32 tonnes), Mumbai (408.27 tonnes), Bangalore (313.87 tonnes) and Hyderabad (199.33 tonnes).
Given the staggering problem, some 17 states in India and union territories have banned plastic in some form or others. The latest to join the bandwagon is the state of Maharashtra that has banned the sale and production of plastic bags and thermocol. While on paper, all these bans might give an impression that much efforts are being undertaken to curb the use of disposable plastic, reality could not be further from the truth. Plastic bags are ubiquitous and pervasive.
The problem has to increased to such a scale that even the Supreme Court took a dour outlook as it weighed in on the pollution. It was in May 2012, when two Supreme Court judges, Justice Singhvi and Justice Mukhopadhaya, commented that “unless we examine a total ban on plastic bags or put in place a system for manufacturers mandating them to collect back all plastic bags, the next generation will be threatened with something more serious than the atom bomb”.
In light of this, India being a host nation for the war on plastic (read pollution) is a pivotal privilege. With the world looking at us, we need to create a benchmark on how to deal with plastic pollution. Starting ground up, we need to spread awareness on the dangers posed by plastic-pollution and discourage the use of disposable plastic bags and bottles. In this war, we need every Indian to participate, be it a politician or a peon, a septuagenarian or a student. We also need to build upon the recycling infrastructure, societies must be coerced to segregate, starting with individual households.
Finally, the laws need be implemented and enforced. The tragedy of India is not that we don't have sufficient legislations in place, but that we lack the wherewithal to enforce them. The ban on plastic bags and bottles, must not only be enacted but also enforced.
Recently, a pilot whale died in Thailand after eating more than 80 plastic bags and other debris. We routinely come across instances of how cows and birds meet a gory end after ingesting plastic bags. In fact, the ignoble plastic bag has even made its way to the deepest known part of our planet, Mariana Trench. Scientists researching deep-sea debris, discovered numerous pieces of plastic bag on the ocean floor, at a depth of 36,000 feet in the Pacific Ocean. To think of it, a staggering 90% of all plastic found in the world’s oceans is carried thereby just ten rivers; all of them in Africa, China, and India. Even nature is now giving us hints that enough is enough, the Ockhi cyclone as it pounded India in 2017, dumped some 80 tonnes of plastic waste on the shores of Kerala, Goa, Karnataka, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. Time seems to be running out on us like we do on the lowly plastic bag. So let's all pledge to #BeatPlasticPollution before it does us.
Shashwat DC is Features Editor at CNBC-TV18. He is closet-activist for sustainability and CSR, when not pondering over the future of humanity or contemplating the launch of the new Android phone.