Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.
We always have partiality and fondness for the organic above the inorganic. As living beings of ephemeral existence, perishable life is what we can accept. Non-perishable plastic posed a challenge to this order of things; a growing concern since it was manufactured first in the last quarter of the 1800s. Plastic provides us ultimate convenience too- it insulates against rain, it is impermeable to cold and heat to a usable extent, and it is the stable alternative to easily corroding and weighty wood-like natural substances and metals. Of late, we more emphatically realized how plastic keeps away unwelcome bacteria and viruses.
In an entirely different realm of thought, plastic remains a villain. Our oceans have become dumping sites of this non-decomposing pollutant. Studies show that in our oceans, rubbish piles of plastic add up every year on a scale of eleven million metric tons. About 340 species of animals including dolphins, whales, pelicans, and turtles are vulnerable to plastic entanglement and plastic-caused feeding problems, more than often resulting in their death. On the land, many grazing cows, camels, sheep, and likewise end up dead eating plastic. The food waste and residue left in abandoned plastic carry bags lure these animals to this horrible fate.
Burning plastic is another threat to our natural environment and all life forms on earth. All human societies started off as agrarian communities, used to burning unwanted waste and often turning it into useful manure. The idea of cleanliness to the agricultural societies worldwide involves burning the waste and keeping their courtyards and premises clean. Even the urban population that exists now evolved from rural beginnings two or three generations back. They too carry out the practices of burning waste. Burned waste was always a better option to living with slowly decomposing waste. Plastic, as a material, subverted this very idea of waste management. It emits harmful chemicals when burned but the question before almost all rural and city dwellers is what else to do with it? Recycling facilities are virtually unavailable in most parts of the world. People still burn plastic whereby asthma-and-cancer-causing gases escape and fill the air. Dioxins notorious for triggering cancer, furans that lead to undesired hormonal changes, and heavy metals affecting many physiological disorders, are released.
Pandemic and Plastic
Covid 19 pandemic turned plastic into a life-saving accessory, all the same, enhanced threat to the environment. To prevent coronavirus infection, plastic PPE kits are affordable and effective protective gear. Other than PPE kits, we use gloves, waste disposal bags, face shields, and even masks made of plastic to ward off the virus. Let us look at the hidden side of this safety net. While a Jordan hospital produced ten-fold medical waste per day during the coronavirus crisis days as compared to pre-pandemic times, Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, had to deal with 200 tons of medical waste per day. In many poor countries, the medical waste, without properly being treated, go to landfills and in worst cases, get incinerated. Plastic constitutes a large part of this waste. The protective quality of plastic has now convinced many nations including the US and UK to revoke the ban on single-use plastic.
The unforeseen impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the price and demand of petroleum products tilted this industry in favor of plastic. The reduced demand for oil coupled with increased demand for plastic naturally boosted the production of the latter. Between 2019 and 2021, the plastic industry’s compound annual growth is 5.5%. From all the above, what the world sees is more plastic.
Argument for Plastic
Where does plastic actually come from? In the first place, the raw materials required to manufacture plastic emerge from the crude oil refining and natural gas production processes. In a sense, if plastic were not to be made using these substances, it would have become the useless waste dump of oil and natural gas manufacturing. In other words, plastic is the glorious end of a waste-to-wealth exercise. The plastic recycling industry is lockdown-stricken and in shackles. Recycled plastic is also not an option for manufacturing medical gear. As of now, no other substance seems to be able to hold a candle to this much-hated material, extremely useful in tackling the pandemic.
© 2021 Deepa