It was 1907, when the first plastic was synthesised. It was Bakelite. A revolutionary material that led the Global Plastic Revolution. Little did we know that this small invention and its further developments would create a havoc on the planet, creating rippling after-effects that will last more than a thousand years even from now. Despite the growth plastic has enjoyed for decades, its detrimental effects on the society simply cannot be ignored now.
Plastic is a flexible, durable and very strong material. A plastic bottle usually lasts around 450 years in marine conditions, slowly breaking and fragmenting into smaller particles until it reaches a microscopic level. However, it never really goes away completely. Those plastics that further break down, usually for toxic chemicals and polymers. Today, nearly 52.5 trillion microscopic particles of plastic exist in the ocean and around 269,000 tons floats at sea, while nearly 4 billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea. All of this waste dumped into the sea creates problems for marine life and over a period of time to humans too.
Two-thirds of this plastic waste comes directly from land resources. From litter on the beach to litter being dropped from towns and cities, plastic is everywhere. Badly managed landfills, industry spillage and unlawful, poor waste management leads to massive dismissal of plastic wastes.
For wildlife such as dolphins, seagulls, whales etc, this can be deadly as they get entangled or mistake these wastes for food. So many photographs of birds eating plastic, animal remains with stomachs full of plastic waste circulate the internet. Whales and other sea-giants malnourished and washed ashore is not a rare sight on many coasts around the world. Autopsies of such animals showing bags full of plastic bags blocking their airways, stomach and intestines are disturbing yet making many of us aware of the impact of plastic pollution.
In the North Pacific Ocean, a slowly swirling whirlpool of ocean current has been collecting the plastic debris we are throwing away. It is nearly twice the size of France. Predictions state that if the plastic usage is unconstrained, this size will double in the next 10 years. We will have a massive island of plastic wastes. Already 5 such ocean gyres or whirlpools exist and are the feeding grounds of aquatic life.
A hundred percent decrease in plastic use, though ideal, is not practical. Many of our core industries depend on plastic derivatives to create fundamental objects required for our daily routine. Unless and until a better, sustainable product fulfils the needs, plastic is here to stay. On a personal level, plastic can be eliminated at various levels. 50% of all plastic produced is single-use. Just four family shopping trips amount to 60 shopping bags. One million plastic bottles are purchased every minute and nearly 50 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. These plastic bags or bottles are used for an average of 12-15 minutes. Hardly 1% of these items reach recycling pits or are reused. This use-and-throw mentality needs to change. Single use plastics of any and all form need to be eliminated. When we consider global warming, we think about lowering the consumption of oil and petrol in hopes of saving the planet but it only takes about 14 plastic bags to drive an equivalent of a mile. Packaging is another single-use plastic accounting for 40% of the uses of plastic.
There is opportunity for betterment in all these areas on a personal as well as societal level. Many companies have banned single-use plastic like bags and bottles. But it is our individual duty to abide by these rules and set personal rules when such higher-level rules don’t exist. Weaning ourselves off of disposable plastics including but not limited to bottles, bags, food wraps, sachets, straws, cups and plates should be our first step in tackling this crisis. Cooking at home, refusing to buy water, buying in bulk, recycling, opting for packaging-free products and buying second hand are some ways reduce our personal usage. Seeing such responses on a personal scale, many companies are noticing, appreciating and incorporating such policies. While we change our habits, we need to make others aware of this and create awareness as well as activism about plastic pollution. Amazon, a giant supply company, has started a provision for packaging-free delivery for customers who wish to opt for it. By giving positive responses and putting pressure on such corporate giants, we can create changes on industry level too. After all, it is what we demand that is supplied to us. If we demand change, we will get change.