Reducing Our Plastic Footprint

Over the past three hundred years, technology has unquestionably enhanced the life and wellbeing of a greater portion of humanity than in all of the human history that went before. Ordinary people can now live longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives.

Yet despite bringing enormous benefits, some technology solutions carry their own seeds of failure by causing problems that are greater than the solutions they first offered. Fossil fuels, DDT, leaded gasoline, CFCs are among the ‘miracle’ products that have in due course bitten the dust of environmental backlash. The Green Revolution comes fairly high in this list.

One with the greatest promise, comparable to that of the coal and oil which fueled the industrial revolution, and the Green Revolution which saved so many from starvation, is the wide spectrum of materials called Plastics. Lives today, whether in the richest or poorest communities are unthinkable without these materials. They pervade every activity, every nook and corner of human existence. From materials to build houses, to buckets to carry and store water, to automobiles and appliances for mobility and productivity and finally to packaging for preserving food – human survival is hard to imagine today without the use of plastics.

Unfortunately, the very properties that make them valuable – versatility, durability, multiple uses, resistance to degradation – have within a century after their introduction into the market made them into a life-threatening menace.

Plastics now also pervade every habitat and every nook and corner of the planet’s environment. In the home, tiny particles of plastic called ‘micro-plastics’ pervade the indoor air and settle on food and eating utensils, creating health hazards that are only now beginning to be recognised, but already thought to be quite dangerous.

In the streets and landfills of cities and villages, remnants of plastic bags get eaten by animals, only to strangulate their internal organs. In the oceans, from the surface to the bottom of the deepest trenches, pieces of plastic testify to the presence, possibly far away of human civilization. The Pacific Gyre, a continent-sized island made entirely of waste plastics 1.6 Million Sq. Km – three times the size of France – floats aimlessly feeding sea-birds, fish and whales with an indigestible diet of undegradable plastic. No sea life can survive such poisoning. And, ironically, the Gyre, which straddles the International Date Line, is among the first places on Earth to welcome the rising sun.

The solution is not to ban all plastics all of a sudden. That was necessary and possible in the case of DDT, CFCs and leaded petrol. What is now needed is an immediate stoppage of plastic use that is either not essential or is substitutable by other more environmentally benign materials. And, of course, urgent support must be given to research and innovation to develop alternatives that bring the same benefits but do no harm.

Governments, businesses, civil society and academia each have major roles to play in this effort to bring together policies, funding, R&D, monitoring and all the other functions that will rescue plastics for the uses they are most valuable for, and finding substitutes for the ones that should follow the sunset.

Dr Ashok Khosla


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