May 27, 2024

In 1954, “Sabrina”, the Audrey Hepburn movie, was a blockbuster. It was also the movie where Humphrey Bogart’s character extolled the virtues of plastic, the revolutionary material of the era.
We have come a long way from those heady days of plastic being the convenient, and cheap go-to material for almost all types of consumer products. Annual global plastic production in the 1950s was at a mere two million metric tons (MT). Seventy years later, it stands at 460 million MT, representing a 230-fold increase. Less than 10 percent of plastic produced is recycled, and the rest is landfilled or gets thrown in our surroundings.
Today, globally and locally, we are grappling with the issue of waste, particularly of single use plastic, which is all too pervasive. This omnipresent eternal material has become a toxic pollutant – difficult and expensive to manage, a driver of climate change, and a health hazard to humans and other living organisms.
Plastic particles are in the clouds, coming down with rain and snow. They are in our oceans, in the tissues of marine life that we eat. Disintegrated tiny plastic pieces or nanoplastics are in our soil where fruits and vegetables such as wheat and lettuce absorb it. The water that we drink has been found to contain microplastics than are less than five millimeters. Thus, according to a scientist, the greatest oil spill is happening right in our bodies, as oil-derived microplastics have been found in maternal and fetal placentas, in breast milk, in the bloodstream, lungs, and arteries of tested individuals who were found to be more susceptible to strokes and heart attacks.
The other health implications of these discoveries have not been firmly established but with plastics containing close to 13,000 chemicals, some of which are known to disrupt hormones, the immune and reproductive systems, and are cancer-causing, it is not hard to imagine the grave and potentially deadly harm it can do to humans.
Animals, too, are affected. Ingested plastics bags cause them to suffer and die due to impacted intestines and starvation. They get entangled in nets or are suffocated by marine litter, 90 percent of which is made up of plastics.
Being a health hazard and an environmental pollutant is just a part of the problem with plastic. Often overlooked is the fact that plastic is implicated in the climate crisis. From the material’s production, involving the energy intensive extraction of crude oil, which is its raw material, to the manufacturing, transportation, consumption, and disposal stages, the entire life cycle of plastic causes the emission of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide greenhouses gases that are heating up our plant.
Aside from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, extraction of fossil fuels to make plastic causes deforestation, the disposal of huge amounts of wastewater and chemicals to the environment, and land degradation. This surely is too high a price to pay for the production of plastic, half of which is single use. Consider that one million plastic bottles are bought and thrown every minute, while five trillion plastic bags are used and thrown yearly.
Climate-relevant GHG gases are also produced during post-consumption disposal. Methane gas is released from degraded plastic debris, especially in open dumpsites. Waste to energy, which is the burning of mostly fossil fuel-based plastic waste emits carbon dioxide as well as dioxin and furan. Incineration is a myopic, quick-fix solution that supplants the urgent need to reduce, redesign, reuse, and recycle to prevent the extraction of finite virgin materials and prevent used products from ending up in the waste stream.
By 2050, the GHG emissions from plastic life cycle are estimated to be equivalent to that of 615 coal plants. This is not farfetched, as petrochemical companies, threatened by public interest in renewable energy for transportation and electrification, look to ramp up plastic production to 600 million tons, a 30 percent increase from its present volume.
The magnitude of the plastic problem has solidified global clamor for a legally binding international agreement to regulate the production and disposal of plastics. By the end of 2024, the United Nations is set to pass a Global Plastics Treaty that aims to drastically cut down the production of plastics and set down policies and regulations to govern production and disposal, with the end goal of ending plastic pollution, reducing global consumption of fossil fuels, and averting a climate catastrophe.
And what can we do at the local level? Contrary to the popular narrative, the onus of solving the plastic waste problem does not lie solely on private citizens. Corporations and businesses should opt for circularity in their business practices, designing products to last, investing in environmentally sustainable packaging, and avoiding wastage from production to disposal stages. The social cost of bad business practices is externalized when taxpayers have to pay for environmental damages and clean ups.
Local governments should craft and implement ordinances to reduce single-use plastics, institutionalize composting, recycling and reuse programs, and invest in educating the citizenry regarding these ecologically sound practices. Incentives such as tax breaks and penalties could be used as instruments to reduce waste. Science and technology could be harnessed for innovative and sustainable product designs, development of circular business models that include sound waste resource management. This is where we need a whole-of-nation approach.