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End Plastic Pollution

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

As Maharashtra struggles to implement its ban, the campaign against plastic is gaining momentum worldwide

W hile there has been much debate on the plastic ban in Maharashtra and how it should be implemented in order to protect industry and other interests, there is no doubt that worldwide the issue of plastic is gaining great attention.

With Earth Day coming up on April 22, the Earth Day Network (EDN)—the organisation that leads Earth Day worldwide—has announced that its campaign this year will be to ‘End Plastic Pollution’.  

“Earth Day 2018 will focus on mobilising the world to End Plastic Pollution, including creating support for a global effort to eliminate single-use plastics along with global regulation for the disposal of plastics,” says Kathleen Rogers, President of EDN. “The   EDN will educate millions of people about the health and other risks associated with the use and disposal of plastics, including pollution of our oceans, water, and wildlife, and about the growing body of evidence that decomposing plastics are creating serious global problems.”

“From poisoning and injuring marine life to the ubiquitous presence of plastics in our food to disrupting human hormones and causing major life-threatening diseases and early puberty, the exponential growth of plastics is threatening our planet’s survival,” she adds.

Referring to EDN’s multi-year campaign to end plastic pollution, she explains, “Our goals include ending single-use plastics, promoting alternatives to fossil fuel-based materials, promoting 100 percent recycling of plastics, corporate and government accountability and changing human behaviour concerning plastics.”

The statistics surrounding plastic pollution aren’t pretty. EcoWatch, an environmental news site, says that the world throws away so much plastic each year that it can circle the earth four times. Then there’s the Great Pacific Garbage Patch off the coast of California, which is the largest ocean garbage site in the world, with a floating mass of plastic that is twice the size of Texas (the plastic pieces outnumber sea life six to one.) Another statistic: 44 per cent of all seabird species, 22 per cent of cetaceans, all sea turtle species and a growing list of fish species have been documented with plastic in or around their bodies.

And what of Maharashtra? We generate around 1200 metric tonnes of plastic waste every day. The trigger for the plastic ban in Maharashtra was the deaths of a whale and cows; the State justified the ban by stating that their stomachs had turned up kilograms of plastic. The fact that marine and other creatures are in danger because of plastic is bad enough; the 2005 floods that devastated Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra were also a direct result of the storm water drains being clogged, largely thanks to plastic bags.

A 2009 report on plastics by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board Practically Feasible and Economically Viable Method of Disposal of Plastic Waste notes that with the rise of consumerism in India post liberalisation, the Use and Throw culture soon found takers, particularly among the young generation. “Today, plastic in its numerous forms finds number one position in the materials used for manufacturing goods on large scale, i.e., consumer goods, and their packaging. This is due to its low weight and high strength and durability, ease of manufacturing and low cost. Unfortunately, these very qualities make it the most difficult material to dispose of. Another drawback encountered equally in its manufacturing and the disposal processes is its toxicity and the resulting pollution,” it says.

If anything, this Use and Throw culture is getting worse, and the online shopping phenomenon isn’t helping; as anyone who has received such parcels will tell you, the amount of packaging material being used is usually disproportionate to the size of the product.

So what’s the big deal about plastic? After all, it’s cheap, convenient and long-lasting enough to be re-used, right? Haven’t all of us, for instance, refilled those packaged mineral water bottles we have bought with water from our own homes?

The problem is, plastic is too long-lasting for anyone’s good; once it gets into a landfill, it will stay there for decades—some estimates, based on scientific studies, put it as 500 to 1,000 years, though plastics have been around only 70 years,  The most common kind of plastic bag—the kind that make our shopping so much easier—is made from polyethylene, a man-made polymer that micro-organisms don’t recognise as food. Scientists at Kyoto University have discovered a plastic-munching microbe, but much more work needs to be done before such methods can be effective.

The thing is, for all the convenience they offer, plastics can directly affect our health. While the process of manufacturing them is not necessarily safe, it can also be dangerous for end users. Sometimes, chemicals can migrate from the plastic packaging to the foods they contain. Examples of plastics contaminating food have been reported with most plastic types, including Styrene from polystyrene, plasticizers from PVC, antioxidants from polyethylene, and Acetaldehyde from PET.

Polyvinylchloride (#3PVC) used in food packaging, plastic wrap, containers for toiletries, cosmetics, and several other applications, can cause cancer, birth defects, genetic changes, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, vision failure, indigestion, and liver dysfunction.

Polystyrene, used in food containers, CD cases, disposable cutlery and throw-away hot drink cups, among several other items, can irritate the eyes, nose and throat; it can also cause dizziness, make one unconscious, and migrate into food. Workers are at elevated risk of lymphatic and hematopoietic cancer.

And while we don’t wish to spoil the party, here’s another fun fact: Polyethelyne (#1 PET), often used in water and soda bottles and plastic bags, among other things, is a suspected human carcinogen.

It’s true that some of the available data can be alarmist and certainly we are not going to give up the use of plastic overnight, just because some facts and figures have come to light in recent times.

There are little ways, however, in which we can reduce the use of plastic in our lives.

Mehndi Shivdasani, who runs, realised that food deliveries always involve the use of too much plastic. So the first 30-day challenge she set herself was to say goodbye to them. On days when she craved Chinese, she walked to the nearest restaurant and picked it up herself in reusable boxes.
“Another great habit to get into,” she writes, “is to call the restaurant you order your food from and tell them not to send any tissue, plastic cutlery and unnecessary condiments.”

Restaurants have also been getting into the act. A bottle of water we picked up from Chai Point, cheerfully announces on its label: “Hi, I am a bottle of water,” and adds in the fine print—“Turn over to see how you can re-use me”.

The other side of the label says: “I am also a flower pot.” Then it advises you to lay it flat, and cut a rectangle on one side, fill it with gravel, add compost and some flower seeds. “Add water, and then marvel at the mystery of life,” it says.

The campaign against plastics—fuelled by the fact that customers are now charged for plastic bags—has ensured that many shoppers now carry their own reusable ones. In Navi Mumbai this January, there were indications that plastic use has dropped; in a Republic Day Drive to collect plastic trash, the total quantity of plastic collected was approximately 10 metric tonnes (MT), as opposed to a record collection of 22 MT the previous year.

Look around you. Is there any plastic you can get rid of? If so, what are you waiting for?

Time to change

Go beyond plastic

Here are 10 ways to do so

Minimise the use of packaging, straws, plastic cutlery and other disposables. Refuse single-serving packaging. Consider carrying an empty box in your backpack when the urge for restaurant food strikes you.

Reuse your shopping bags. Lightweight, inexpensive folding cloth bags are easily available and take no room in your purse at all when not in use. They look quite trendy too!

Carry your own mug to the coffee shop; the server may give you a strange look, but never mind.

Buy music online. Do you really need those plastic CDs or DVDs?

Avoid heating food in plastic containers.

Watch out for plastic wraps. Some cling wraps are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC, #3). Don’t use them in the microwave and if you must, then ensure it doesn’t touch the food. Instead, try paper towels, wax paper, or just a glass plate or lid.

Replace your ice trays with metal ones. Freezing makes plastic degrade quicker, which can result in leaching chemicals.

Get rid of—which means recycle—any plastic that shows signs of wear and tear. If it’s worn, sticky, scratched or cracked, you don’t need it in your life.

Which brings us to recycling. As the Maharashtra government sets up recycling options, look out for supermarkets and other such places where such bins are set up. We’ve seen one such facility for tetrapacks outside Reliance Fresh, but it didn’t look like too many people were using it.

Spread the word! There are alternatives to plastic if you look around. Glass, copper, stainless steel, wood, paper, jute, rubber... all of these make for great substitutes!

An impractical ban?

Mumbaikars comment on the recent plastic ban and its implementation

Sudhir Gupte
Businessman, Palava 

Plastic bags can’t be recycled with other plastic items like bottles and containers. Plastic bags blow away and get swept out to sea, this is where they cause more trouble. Plastic bags can block the digestive tract, causing slow and agonizing death to marine animals. When the harmful chemicals in plastic leach in to the ground or are ingested by land or sea animals, the chemicals become part of our food chain. That means you may have unknowingly swallowed a bit of plastic bag too.

Plastic bags are more sanitary than reusable cotton or canvas, by which can harbour harmful germs from raw meat and produce. We should avoid paper bags too. We should use more earth-friendly materials, such as corn for bags. But I feel instead of 100% banning plastic bags it should be limited in use.
Mehndi Shivdasani
Environmental activist and ‘Conscious Chokri’, Mahim

"The intent behind the ban is great but its implementation has been a bit messy. Plastic has taken over our lives, from the food we consume to the clothes we wear, almost everything has some form of plastic in it. We need to urgently address the rampant use of plastic but an outright ban may not necessarily be the correct approach. The ban is a reactive approach to the problem while we need our government to be more proactive in their effort to resolve the issue of excess plastic.
The government needs to offer more information to businesses and consumers on how to best recycle their plastic items. Additionally, just banning plastic isn’t the answer to all our environmental woes. We need to work on creating alternatives to plastic packaging and make these alternatives accessible and cost-effective for all."

Nandita Welling
Teacher, Prabhadevi

You can’t have a sudden ban on anything. It takes time for anything to change, hence it is good to ban to plastic bags but at the same time bring about a way to change it.

Yamini Jay Singh
Freelance blogger, Vashi

I am actually finding this complete ban bit impractical to impose, Plastic use isn’t as harmful as its wrong disposal. Yes, it will be an issue in day-to-day life to get used to it.

Dr Shalaka Deo
Physiotherapist, Kandivali

A plastic ban is 100% welcome. It is a small step towards saving Mother Earth, which is under a tremendous threat of global warming. Today we are very dependent on  plastic-made items which are an inevitable part of our routine lives but maximum effort should be made on use of recyclable plastic so that plastic waste, which is a silent killer of the environment, can be controlled. This would benefit the environment and the human and animal race.

Neeta Shiweshvarkar
Home-maker, Mahim

Plastic can cause environment damage, clog waterways, oceans and forests. It also leads to health hazards; studies say that food cooked and consumed in plastic in the microwave may lead to physical harm. Plastic also produces toxins when burnt, and this again is an environment hazard.

As told to Smita Rao

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