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Life without plastic

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

As resentment over the ban grows, particularly among retailers, here’s a reminder of why we need to do without plastic and urgently find alternatives

Now that the plastic ban has come into force and we are all trying to figure out ways to do without it, it’s imperative to remember why it was put into place to begin with.

Of course, the transition won’t be easy; at the Expo that Bombay Municipal Corporation organised over the weekend at Nehru Centre, there simply weren’t enough alternatives on display, and those that were available were expensive—one stall owner justified his Rs 16 per disposable plate price tag by stating that these were imported from the United Kingdom. And when, after an impassioned speech, the assistant commissioner asked people in the audience to say ‘No Plastic’, the response was feeble. What wasn’t feeble, however, was the question-answer session that followed in which audience members, most of them retailers, demanded to know what the substitutes were to plastic packaging, because there was nothing on display at the Expo. Eventually, after the angry audience surged towards the stage, she had to be escorted from the dais by police.

The BMC clearly doesn’t have enough answers and no one is impressed when officials justify their actions by simply saying that they are implementers and not policy makers. But as Maharashtra joins countries around the world, from Ireland to France to Kenya to Mexico and Canada, it is vital to remember why we need to live without plastic.

The World Environment Day campaign reminds us that one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute. Every year, we use up to five trillion disposable plastic bags, at least half of it single use. Up to 13 million tons of plastic leak into our oceans annually, endangering marine life and destroying coral reefs. The plastic in our seas is so voluminous it can circle the Earth four times in a single year, and take up to 1,000 years to disintegrate.

WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?

For a moment, never mind about all the big global issues surrounding plastic use. However, think for a minute on how it impacts your own life and your health, and that of your family.

You could be eating plastic

Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (NGI), which has been conducting the WEATHER-MIC research report, has found that microplastics can accumulate in fish, birds and other marine life. Microplastics are plastic pieces  smaller than 5 mm, which are used in household products such as toothpaste, clothing (such as polyester) or larger pieces that degrade into smaller fragments. Too small to be seen by the naked eye, such pollutants can get stuck in the gills, mouths, stomachs and digestive systems of fish, making it difficult for them to eat or breathe, according to Hans Peter Arp, principal engineer at NGI's division for Environmental Technology.

A recent BBC report found that Hong Kong’s fish are eating plastic and that human beings are consuming such fish. One fish was found with 80 pieces of plastic inside. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which has launched the #CleanSeas Campaign, says that plastic pollution has reached the deepest parts of the ocean and by 2050, there will be more plastic pieces than fish. Is that what you would like your kids’ generation to eat?

Childhood asthma

For a while now, experts have suggested a connection between asthma and exposure to plasticisers during childhood. A Columbia University report has found that children can be at risk even before birth. Over a ten-year period, scientists studied the phthalate levels of pregnant women, and found that children born to women with increased levels were more than three times likely to develop asthma symptoms than other kids. According to one theory following this finding, phthalates increase airway sensitivity that could lead to asthma.

Disfigured in the womb

At a seminar in Chennai last year, Dr V Sripathi, Senior Paediatric Urologist and Director of Paediatric Urology Fellowship Program reportedly spoke about how one out of 250 male children around the world are born with a condition called hypospadias, an abnormality of the genitals. Plastic could be one  of the reasons, he said. Studies have also found that Di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP) is a phthalate that is often found in vinyl products can affect male genital development before birth if the pregnant woman is exposed.

Hormonal changes

Phthalates in plastic have even been linked to low libido in women; these chemicals may be found in items such as PVC flooring, shower curtains and car dashboards. These toxins can create problems with hormonal levels. BPA—bisphenol A, a an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1960s—mimics estrogen in the body. Phthalates are a cause for grave concern in packaging material but they are also used in personal care items.

MAKE THE TRANSITION EASIER

So while it is true that the government needs to come up with alternatives for packaging material and respond quickly to genuine grievances of the retailer and hotelier community, in your own life, spare a thought for your health as you bring in the lifestyle changes that the ban demands. It really isn’t so difficult putting a foldable cloth bag into your purse or carrying your own container to the meat shop. Before you know it, you will be living without plastic and wondering why you ever thought it would be tough.

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