What is the impact of increasing plastic pollution on the environment?

by Ruhail Maqbool Sheikh

Since its invention, we have produced about 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, or about 335 million tons in 2016 alone. More than 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic have become waste since 1907.

Plastic waste on the banks of a small stream in South Kashmir. All waste eventually ends up in the oceans and is consumed by marine life. Peak Ruhail Maqbool

When God granted the king a wish, he wanted everything he touched to turn to gold. The king was delighted when all the buildings and trees around him turned to gold. But after a while, he discovered to his horror that his food was also turning into gold. He felt sad with pain and hugged his only daughter and she also turned into gold. Finally, he realized his mistake but it was too late. The richest man ever was hungry, lonely and heartbroken.

We also had a similar wish when we learned how to turn brown goo into magic plastic. Cheap, sterile and convenient, it changed our lives but this marvel of technology eluded us. Plastic has saturated our environment. It invaded the animals we eat and now it enters our bodies.

What is plastic?

Plastics are a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that use polymers as their main ingredient. Their plasticity allows them to be molded, extruded or pressed into solid objects of various shapes. This adaptability, along with a wide range of other properties, such as its lightness, durability, flexibility and low cost of production, have led to its widespread use.

Plastics are generally made by human industrial systems. Most modern plastics are derived from fossil fuel chemicals As natural gas Where oil; however, recent industrial methods use variants made from renewable materials, such as corn Where cotton derivatives. Today, almost everything is at least partly made of plastic. Our clothes, phones, furniture, toys, computers and many of these things are made of plastic. There are also other forms of plastic, microplastics.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are everywhere. These are smaller pieces of less than 5 mm. The term macroplastic is used to differentiate microplastics from larger plastic waste, such as plastic bottles. Some of them are used in toothpastes and cosmetics. But most come from floating waste that is constantly exposed to UV rays. About more than 50 trillion of these particles float in the ocean, where they are even more easily swallowed by all kinds of marine life. This has raised concerns about health risks from chemicals added to the plastic. There is also evidence that it interferes with our hormonal system.

Microplastics have been found to move through the food chain and end up in honey, sea salt, beer, tap water, and household dust around us. Plastic has long ceased to be a revolutionary material, instead it has become waste. Coffee cups, plastic bags or stuff to wrap a banana. We don’t think much about this fact. Plastic appears and disappears. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as synthetic polymers are so durable that plastic takes between 500 and 1000 years to decompose. But somehow, we collectively decided to use this super tough material for items that were meant to be thrown away.

About 40% of packaging is plastic. Since its invention, we have produced about 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, or about 335 million tons in 2016 alone. More than 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic have become waste since 1907.

Billa, whose real name is Bilal Ahmad Dar, makes a living from Lake Wullar, collecting plastic from the key body of water.

So, what have we done with all this waste? Only a few percent can be recycled or burned. Finally, many end up in the ocean and most marine animals continue to be trapped in plastic and swallow it – many animals starve to death with stomachs full of indigestible waste. In 2018, a dead sperm whale stranded in Spain ate around 32 kg of plastic bag netting and other plastic products.

We need a lot more research before the panic is warranted. But it’s safe to say a lot of things happened that we didn’t expect and we lost control of the plastic to some degree, which is pretty scary. Now the question is whether we should ban plastic altogether, but unfortunately it’s more complicated than that.

Plastic pollution is not the only environmental challenge we face, but some of the substitutes we would use for plastic have a higher environmental impact in other ways. According to a recent study, making a single-use plastic bag requires so little energy and produces far less carbon dioxide emissions compared to a reusable cotton bag, that we have to use our cotton bags even a thousand times before it had less of an impact. on the environment than the plastic bag.

We end up with a complex process of trade-offs. Everything has an impact in one way or another and it is difficult to find the right balance between them. Plastic also helps solve a lot of problems that we don’t have very good answers for right now. Globally, a third of all food produced is never eaten and ends up rotting in landfills where it produces methane. The best way to prevent food from spoiling and avoid unnecessary waste is plastic packaging.

It’s also important to note where the vast majority of the world’s plastic pollution currently comes from. Around 90% of all plastic waste comes from just ten rivers in Asia and Africa, China’s Yangtze alone dumps 1.5 million tonnes of plastic into the ocean each year.

Countries like India, China and Indonesia have industrialized at an impressive rate in recent decades, transforming the lives of billions of people. It was so fast that the garbage disposal infrastructure couldn’t keep up with collecting and recycling all the new garbage it brought. Investing in infrastructure in developing countries is just as important as tackling plastic pollution with campaigns and repair products to minimize unnecessary plastic production.

Ruhail Maqbool Sheikh (Jal Shakti)

Ultimately, as long as we don’t address plastic pollution from a global perspective. We will not solve it. Plastic pollution is a complicated problem. We found some magic material and had a great time, but we have to be careful or just like the king, we’ll end up in a world we didn’t want. Our individual daily actions always have a huge impact on what really matters. Refuse disposable plastics and convince your friends and family to do so. Lobby companies, vendors and ask the administration to take the necessary measures to ensure the safety of our water resources and our environment. Together we can defeat plastic pollution.

“There is no doubt that humans will do a lot of damage before they finally destroy us. But life will go on without humans. New forms of intelligence will emerge long after this human experience is over.

(The author holds a Masters Degree in Environmental and Occupational Health and Analytical Chemistry, in addition to a Management Diploma in Human Resource Management. He works for the department of Jal Shaki in Jammu and Kashmir. Opinions are personal.)

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Bryce K. Locke