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Plastics And Environment: Myth Vs Reality

Here are a few myths and realities about plastics and their effect on our environment.

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Our present lifestyle uses large number of plastic products. This is because of inherent properties which lead to excellent performance. In packaging of food, vegetables, fruits or grains, in healthcare or medicines or in transportation and most importantly agriculture and defense, the plastics play vital role. The plastic market is close to $90 billion, owing to growing demands for more efficient materials. 

The plastic products like pipes or bathroom curtains last for several decades. Some other products such as credit cards may have life of few years. None of these have been blamed for environmental impact. The thin plastic film used in packaging has very high strength and it lasts for many years. This strength of plastic has somehow become the enemy as it has been overemphasized that plastic does not degrade. Metals and glass also do not degrade for long times – yet no one blames them.   Let us therefore look at the big myth that ‘plastic is environmentally dangerous’ which is created deliberately perhaps by some forces. 

The use of plastics as an enabler of sustainability is often ignored. Some of the main key points for the exponential growth of plastic materials can be :- Plastics are lightweight and hence take less energy to transport compared to other materials. Plastics are more durable compared to other materials such as glass or paper. The ability to use plastic for a long time lessens the need for replacement and increased production.  Plastics are essential for the operation of electric vehicles that are effective in reaching the goal of clean and zero-emission vehicles. 

Why plastics may be targeted? The human society has been familiar with short time packaging material such as banana leaves, paper or clay plates etc. After the use, these have been disposed off in municipal garbage. These being ‘biodegradable’, the disposal of plastic was expected to yield same results. One of the natural property or strength of plastics is that it is unaffected by water, dust, solvents or living microorganisms. Surprisingly, instead of developing newer methods of disposal for plastics, many ‘environmentalists’ and ‘NGO’s decided to blame plastic. Some of the scientific facts were twisted to blame plastics. 

Here are a few myths and realities about plastics and their effect on our environment.  

Myth: Paper bags are more sustainable than plastics bags 

Fact: Normally, we judge a product’s sustainability in terms of its waste disposal problem. Each process connected with a product, making till delivery, has some impact on the environment. The belief that the substitution of plastics with paper is more sustainable is not supported by facts. The production of paper bags requires two and a half times more energy as compared to plastic bags of the same size and creates significantly more air pollutants. Some argue that paper comes from trees which are renewable whereas plastic is manufactured by oil which cannot be replaced. They forget that 44 million hectares of forests have been cut since Independence and forests play an important role in maintaining soil and atmospheric balance on Earth. If plastic bags are replaced with traditional material like paper, cloth, or jute it will lead to major issues in the eco-system.  

Myth: Plastic takes the longest to Decompose  

Fact: Archaeological findings from around the world show that glass - which is depicted as an eco-friendlier material - can survive underground for thousands of years. Some say that the process of its decomposition takes place only after thousands of years, and some say that glass is in fact not biodegradable at all. Other materials like metal are also non-biodegradable. Biodegradation is not economically viable, but plastic, on the other hand can easily be recycled and used over longer periods of time. Plastic waste is predominantly eco-natural or inert. It does not generate toxic substances and therefore does not contaminate the soil or groundwater. This material is easily compactible and occupies less space in landfills.  

Myth: Plastic emits toxic substances and is harmful to soil, plants, and water bodies 

Fact: Plastic prevents massive deforestation by offering a substitute to wood for various purposes like furniture, crates, packaging etc. Plastic pipes are widely used globaly in water management and irrigation to promote rapid crop development and transplantation. In fact, plastic packaging largely reduces the rotting of fruits and vegetables. Food and drug authorities worldwide permit the use of different kinds of plastics in various applications involving direct contact with food or drugs. Plastic products are used in artificial organs. Will any medical authority allow such uses over several decades if plastics were harmful to human health? 

Other considerations: Plastic packages were used in supplying food and other essentials to flood affected people in recent cyclones. If milk is to be supplied in glass bottles, the milk carrying capacity of a goods supply vehicle can be less than half if milk pouches are used. The enormous amounts of water used for cleaning of glass bottles for reuse can be yet another issue. When glass or construction debris is thrown in water, it sinks and the ‘problem’ is not noticed.  

Who litters: - Plastics or humans? This is the question that we must look at. Plastics do not walk into sea or climb the trees. There are various issues of waste management associated with plastics and they do not end only with plastic. We need to change our habits and work on sustainable living by slowing down the unlimited consumption and wastage of all types – water, food, and wood and so on. We need to be reminded that plastic is here to stay and is not a one-time use material. We should be aware of the benefits of plastic packaging and the need to dispose of them in the right manner so that it can be recycled.  

We should prevent the litter of any material and not just the plastics. Banning the use of plastics or wrongly blaming this wonderful material is not the solution. The alternative to the problematic plastic products is the plastic product of better design so that littering or throwing it would not take place. 

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