Plastics: Miracle Material or Growing Threat – Part II

Disposal of Plastics: What is the big fuss?

Burning of Plastics

Collecting and preparing plastics for recycling requires effort and time. Very often the question arises as to why it is important to participate in recycling. In small households, it may seem more convenient to burn the plastic items, especially since the quantity of plastics generated is quite small. Plastics are flammable and generally burns off quickly and leaves only small quantities of residues. This promotes the tendency to burn plastic wastes. Also, there is a practice among municipality sweepers and cleaners to collect street wastes which consist of leaves, twigs, paper and plastics among others, and burn it together. This generally happens in early mornings and often goes unnoticed by the public. The particles though not visible to the naked eye remain in the air or may also settle down as soot or dust. These particles and fumes are extremely toxic and can cause several serious ailments including cancer.

Did you know? Solid Waste Management (SWM) rules 2016 directs that solid waste of any kind should not be burnt in public open spaces. It also states that even fallen tree leaves on streets should not be burnt and should instead be collected by the street sweeper and handed over to the responsible waste-collecting agency. The Honourable High Court of Kerala in a 2016 circular has banned the burning of plastic and rubber in open spaces with the observation that such burning of these items can cause an alarming negative impact on public health and needs to be controlled to protect the health of the public and the environment as well. Violations of this ban are considered a cognizable offense and Section 268 (causing a public nuisance), 269 (a negligent act which can spread an infectious disease dangerous to life) and 278 (Making atmosphere noxious to health) of the Indian Penal Code and section 120(c) of Kerala Police Act can be invoked for this offense. The powers of Police under section 149 (Police to prevent cognizable offenses) and 151 (Arrest to prevent a cognizable offense) in Chapter XI of Code of Criminal Procedure may be implemented in unavoidable situations.

Exposure to fumes from burning plastics can cause coughing, sneezing and headaches. Long term exposure to these fumes often leads to breathing issues. Burning of these plastics release toxic gases like dioxins, furans, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) and polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAHs) into the air. These toxins can damage eyes and mucous membrane, disrupt the reproductive and endocrine systems, cause damage to nervous systems, and some of the toxins are also known to cause cancer. The burning of PVC (chlorine-containing plastic) is known to release hydrochloric acid into the air. These fumes are acidic in nature and exposure to these fumes even in small quantities is dangerous. Impartial burning of plastics can generate carbon monoxide which is an extremely toxic gas. In improperly ventilated spaces, exposure to large quantities of carbon monoxide can also cause death. Similarly, benzene is another carcinogenic gas that may be generated during the burning of plastics.

Plastics also release ash and soot during its burning. Some of the ash (fly ash) which is released into the air maybe be extremely small in size and may remain suspended in the air. These particles are invisible to the naked eye and they can be carried in the air across several thousands of kilometres. Some of these particles may also settle down under gravity or maybe be washed down during rains. In addition to this fly ash, the soot deposited during burning may also be carried for short distances by wind. With time, all these particles settle down on plants and crops, and on soil or water bodies. Eventually, these particles can find their way into our bodies either through water or food.

Plastics may also contain heavy metals like lead, cadmium, chromium, copper or cobalt which may be added as colouring agents. These metals will be released into the air as particulates or as soot, all of which have the potential to eventually find their way into our bodies.

In this context, it is very important to understand the two main types of air particulates which is commonly used to evaluate air pollution, PM 2.5 and PM 10. PM represents Particulate Matter; 2.5 and 10 represent the size of particulates. Particles having a diameter lesser than 10 micrometres are called PM 10 and those having a size lesser than 2.5 micrometres are called PM 2.5. To get an idea about how large these particles are, we can compare it to the size of our hair. In general, a hair strand is about 50 – 70 micrometres in thickness. So basically PM 2.5 particles will have a size 20-30 times less than the thickness of a single strand of our hair, while PM 10 will consist of particles that have a size 5 to 7 times less than the size of a strand of our hair.

Particles that have a size greater than 10 microns can be effectively filtered by the nasal hair while those smaller in size cannot be. The particles greater than 10 microns can nevertheless irritate our eyes and nose. Particles having a size lesser than 2.5 microns cannot be filtered out and reach the lower parts of our respiratory tract while those having size greater than 2.5 microns but lesser than 10 microns remain in the upper respiratory tract. These particles affect the working of the lungs and reduce their capacity and make the person more susceptible to lung diseases and in the long run heart diseases as well. When young children whose lungs are still in the developing stage are exposed to such particulate emissions, it can even impair the development, thus making these children more susceptible to long term respiratory illness. Elderly people are also at high risk because, in combination with age-related illnesses, respiratory illnesses may aggravate their conditions and trigger early death. During the burning of plastics, PM 2.5 and PM 10 particles are generated and these particles are also of toxic chemical compositions which makes it even more dangerous. The solution, in this case, is perhaps to collect and send non-recyclable plastics to designated plastic incineration facilities where plastics can be incinerated under controlled conditions so that these toxic fumes are not formed. Most plastics except PVC may be dealt with in this manner. In any case, the uncontrolled burning of plastics must be avoided in households and public places.

Dumping of Plastics

Roadsides littered with plastics have become a very common sight nowadays. In municipalities where there are no proper waste collection systems, people resort to illegally disposing of household waste on roadsides or unoccupied plots of land. This not only creates unhygienic conditions but also attracts street dogs, rodents, stray cattle and other pests too. These plastics are either burnt by municipality workers along with other street refuse or are washed/thrown away into the roadside drains or sewage systems. This further leads to blockage of the drains and can lead to breeding of mosquitoes and other insects which increases the prevalence of diseases like malaria, chikungunya, dengue etc. Also, during the monsoon, these blocked drains prevent the flow of water and to an extent can be held responsible for the ‘urban floods’. Most of the plastics disposed in this manner finally reach our rivers and coastal waters and contribute to their pollution.

It is also important to look at this plastic pollution from a tourism point of view. Tourist spots littered with plastics and waste form an unpleasant sight and can deter tourists from visiting these locations. In addition, these tourist locations may have a very fragile ecosystem e.g.; Silent Valley, Munnar, etc and this kind of pollution can seriously upset the ecological balance in these places. The Government must take necessary actions to prevent the usage of plastics and implement stringent rules regarding waste disposal in the tourist spots to prevent littering by the tourists as well as the public.

The Clean Kerala Initiative, a waste-free project working towards the reduction of plastic usage and for introducing a green certificate for tourist destinations was launched in Kerala in 2019. Nine locations – Munnar, Kollam, Alappuzha, Kovalam, Thekkady, Fort Kochi, Kumarakom, Wayanad and Bekal are included in the first phase of this project.

What can we do as individuals?

  • The best practice would be to avoid plastics wherever they can be avoided. This can be as simple as using cloth bags or reusable bags when going shopping. During this pandemic, there is a lot of concern regarding reusables due to fear of virus contamination. We must keep in mind that a reusable cloth bag if washed correctly using a disinfectant will be ‘safer’ than those available at a store. In fact, it can be compared to washing our hands or sanitising our hands after shopping. By reusing a bag, we can ensure that we are the only person handling it especially if we pack the items into the bag ourselves.
  • About twenty-thirty years ago, it was quite common for customers to carry jute bags or cloth bags to the shops while purchasing their goods. Different items were simply placed groupwise into the bags. Grain and pulses were wrapped in paper and then tied using a jute thread. Now all these systems have a replacement in plastics and these plastics are accumulating in our homes. While it is convenient at the time of purchase, the disposal of such items later becomes a problem.  Most types of packing are either difficult to be recycled or cannot be recycled at all. It is time to recheck our practices and revert to more environment friendly options.
ItemPrevious PracticePresent Practice
Milk, Cooking OilsPurchased within the neighbourhood, stored in glass or steel vesselsPurchased from supermarkets in plastic packets and bottles
PulsesSold loose, wrapped in paper tied with jute threadSold in individually packed plastic covers
Rice and grainsJute BagsPlastic Fibre bags
Shopping bagsJute or cloth bags taken from homePlastic bags provided by the shop at free/paid
Talcum powderTinPlastic container
ToothpasteMetalPlastic tubes
Tea/Coffee, snacks from roadside shopsSteel/glass tumblers and steel platesPlastic/Disposable glass and plates
  • In several corporations and municipalities, Kudumbashree workers have been collecting recyclable plastic wastes. There is a certain unwillingness among the public to pay for this service. People are also reluctant to take efforts to clean and segregate the plastics before they are collected by the workers. Here it is important to understand why it is necessary to separate different plastics and collect them separately. A recycling unit can only handle the specific type of plastic that it is designed for. For example, a factory designed to recycle PET bottles cannot recycle Polystyrene.
  • It is easier for workers to separate different plastic items at the source itself and it becomes even more faster and efficient if the household has already separated the waste. The plastic wastes thus collected is often stored for long periods till it accumulates to large enough quantities that it can be transported to the recycling plants. If the plastics are not cleaned and dried, bacteria, fungi and even worms can grow within it, and render these items unsuitable for recycling. Besides, food contamination may also attract pests, rats and other rodents.  These conditions create unhygienic and unsanitary conditions for the workers to work in. If these contaminated plastics are used directly for recycling, it will produce recycled products of a very low quality which will not have any buyers in the markets.
  • Avoid burning of plastics at household levels. It might seem more convenient to burn these plastics instead of taking the effort to prepare them for recycling. Burning of plastics release extremely toxic fumes which include dioxins and furans. Once these compounds enter the body, they get absorbed by the fat tissue present in our bodies and can persist up to 7-11 years. These cause a wide range of health issues ranging from skin ailments, impairment of immune and nervous system of the body, several kinds of cancer etc. Long term and constant exposure to such chemicals can have the same result as smoking or even worse.
  • Use steel/reusable cups while traveling so that it can be used instead of paper/plastic cups.
Did you know? A complaint was filed by Avani Mishra that unchecked use of plastic pens is harming the environment. She claimed that the extended producer’s liability was not being enforced and suggested that a ‘buy-back’ policy should be introduced. The items covered in PWM rules 2018 under Extended Producer Responsibilities (EPR) are multilayer plastic sachets or pouches or packing and thus plastic pens and other plastic products are not covered under it. A National Framework for EPR under PWM rules 2018, is under consideration at the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has communicated to MoEFCC that items under EPR should be clearly enumerated

It may not be able to completely ban plastics, but there should be more accountability regarding the plastic wastes that are being generated.  Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules 2016 is rather loosely framed regarding Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). The Government must play a key role in framing stronger rules regarding EPR and ensure that companies using plastics in their products/production will strictly adhere to these rules. Wherever possible composite packing like MLP should be avoided and recyclable materials should be used. Before enforcing bans, reliable alternative to MLPs needs to be considered, marketed and promoted; and awareness programs should be widely propagated among the industry and public alike. Once suitable alternatives are available, bans on the selected plastics and levies/penalties on those using them may also be implemented. This will help people to be aware of what is happening and why it is done so that they will be encouraged to follow the rules rather than find loopholes to use the banned products.

What can the Government do?

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in the report ‘Single use Plastics: A Roadmap to Sustainability’ has suggested an excellent roadmap that can be adopted as a framework for phasing out single use plastics. The first and crucial step is to identify the most problematic plastic and the extent of pollution it causes. The next steps would be to evaluate the different possible actions to address the issues caused by this plastic and to identify a suitable measure amongst them. The possible repercussions caused by this measure should also be evaluated. The next step would be to engage the different stakeholders in this issue and conducts discussions and policies to benefit all the involved parties. This would include the National and Local Government; Pollution boards; the plastic producers, retailers and trade associations; and most importantly citizens of the country. It is also necessary to conduct widespread awareness campaigns and educate everyone involved about the menace of plastic pollution and the problems that it causes. The awareness campaign should also educate citizens about the measures that are to be adopted to remediate it and why it is necessary. It is not possible to engage citizens productively unless they are sufficiently aware of the measures that are being adopted.

Bans on the use of certain plastics, introducing levies and fines, etc will have to be enforced to bring out a change in the pattern in which plastics are used. But before such a measure is introduced, it is of utmost importance that suitable environment-friendly alternatives are made available to the consumers. These alternative materials have to be of good quality, affordable and widely available to all. The Government will have to implement multiple measures to promote research, production and availability of such alternative materials and ensure that suitable incentives are given to those producing them. Sufficient time should be provided to ensure that both consumers and the industry adapt to the newly implemented measures before bans on plastics are put in to place. Finally, there should also be policies to improve waste minimisation and promote the recycling industries. Laws should be formulated to implement and ensure that both consumers and industries meet environmentally sustainable standards.

Figure 13 Roadmap for policy makers as suggested by UNEP in the report ‘Single use Plastics: A Roadmap to Sustainability’
Did you know?
A petition was filed in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against the use of PVC and chlorinated plastics which includes banners/hoardings for promotions advertising during elections. In response, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) wrote a letter in January 2019 to all Chief Secretaries and Chief Electoral Officers of all States/UTs to use alternative options in election campaigning.

Final Words

As per the 2018 report by United Nations Environment Programme, it is expected that by 2050 there were will approximately 12 billion tonnes of plastic litter in landfills and the environment. The economic damage to the world’s marine ecosystem is projected to be about 13 billion dollars. It is also estimated that about 20% of the world’s total oil consumption will be used to produce plastics. Most of these plastics are used for packaging and are primarily for single use. Plastics have become the most significant component of this ‘Throwaway culture’ in which plastics are treated as a disposable material rather than as a resource that can be harnessed. It is the lack of suitable alternatives to plastics and the lack of proper regulations for plastic usage and disposal that has led to the enormity of plastic pollution. Both the Government, the private sector and the public need to step up and act upon solving this plastic menace. As Erik Solheim mentioned in his foreword to the UNEP article ‘Plastic isn’t the problem. It’s what we do with it. And that means that the onus is on us to be smarter in how we use this miracle material.’

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