Plastic's Gordian knot
Can humanity defeat its deadly addiction of plastic?
STELLA MCCARTNEY is an English fashion designer known for her support of animal rights. Her label assiduously eschews fur or leather. This June, she announced a line of luxury goods fashioned out of yarn spun from plastic garbage gleaned from the oceans. “To take something that is destructive and turn it into something that’s sexy and cool, how can that not be luxury?” Stella told The New York Times.
Far away from the glitz of Stella’s fashion universe, last September, a zealous 19-year-old environmental activist named Jawahar took his own life by jumping into a canal in the temple town of Thanjavur. He left behind a video recording of his suicide note: “I am sacrificing my life in the hope that it will trigger serious concern about plastic use in India. Since all of my peaceful means of protest failed, I’m forced to choose suicide...”
Two contrasting reactions to the modern pandemic of plastic pollution, one fighting, the other funereal, but both signify the Faustian nature of our toxic love affair with plastic. Obscene ly cheap, magnificently protean, and addictive ly convenient, it has become the preeminent“lubricant of global is at ion ”— we now produce 20 times more plastic than 50 years ago, which is expected to double in the next 20 years.
In an everyday sense, even though we live in a virtual sea of plastic, we become conscious of it only when it is virtually immortal, ugly discards stare at us mortals from open sewers, landfills, rivers, and beaches. But it has a darker underbelly, glimpsed only occasionally through pictures and videos of poor workers recycling plastic waste in horrendous working conditions. More worryingly, the merchants of doubt hired by the plastic industry have muddied the case against plastic’s health hazards so much that most of us continue to patronise it fecklessly.
McCartney seems distressed more by the planet-wide spillover of plastic trash, which, according to a recently released global report on plastics, is threatening a “near permanent contamination of the natural environment”. It is so far-flung that now it disgraces some of the remotest parts of the planet like the Arctic and Pacific islands. Picture this: At least 8 million tonnes of plastic finds its way into the ocean each year—put another way, this is the same as dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean per minute. If unchecked, this may jump to four per minute by 2050. Or digest this: the world buys a million plastic bottles every minute.
The trouble with plastic is that it does not biodegrade, which means no microbe has yet developed an appetite for it, which in turn means it can swirl around in the oceans unchanged for hundreds of years. Scientists estimate that there is over 150 million tonnes of plastic waste in the ocean today. If business continues as usual,
Even as science unmasks the sinister side of plastic, we are becoming ever more dependent on it. Is there a way out of this deadly addiction?
they suspect by 2050, plastic would literally outweigh fish in the ocean. They fear that some of it may have already sneaked into the human food chain.
While it may not biodegrade, plastic is not totally inert either, as originally supposed. There is enough evidence now to suggest that many dangerous chemicals, notably phthalates and bisphenol A, do escape at high temperatures, and can foul up the body’s hormonal harmony, causing all manner of disorders, such as infertility, birth defects, heart disease, allergies, and even cancers. That's a pretty serious indictment.
However, plastic did not always get such a bad press. In the second half of the 19th century, a large number of animals were being murdered in the wild for the sake of luxury products (such as billiards balls from elephant ivory and combs from the shells of hawksbill turtles). In 1870, when John Wesley Hyatt patented the process for making celluloid, the first plastic, he used the following sales spiel: “As petroleum came to the relief of the whale, so has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts.”
Equally fascinatingly, the shape-shifting prowess of celluloid allowed designers to fabricate make-believe replicas of luxury wares that were so cheap that even the poor could afford them. The phenomenal success of celluloid goaded the creation of many more types of plastic beginning with Bakelite, the first plastic synthesised in a lab. Before long, we had a slew of plastics with unique properties—Styrofoam, pvc, polycarbonate, pet, Nylon, Kevlar, and Teflon, to name a few. As Susan Freinkel writes in her absorbing Plastic: A Toxic Love Story: “Plastics, so cheaply and easily produced, offered salvation from the haphazard and uneven distribution of natural resources that had made some nations wealthy, left others impoverished, and triggered countless devastating wars. Plastics promised a material utopia, available to all.”
The irony is that even as we have become more aware of plastic’s perils, it seems nearly impossible to escape it. In 2013, an average American consumed 109 kg of plastic, and a Chinese 45 kg. India came late to the globalisation bandwagon, so it still consumes a relatively modest 9.7 kg per person, but, growing at 10 per cent per year, it is catching up fast. No surprise then that, according to Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control, at least 80 per cent of Americans now carry measurable traces of plastic in their bodies. As someone remarked ominously, we have all become a little plastic now.
Clearly, there are no easy exits out of this labyrinth. At most, individuals and communities may decide to ban certain kinds of plastics from their lives, like toys or microwaveable plastic. Or, they may force the industry to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals, as they did with vinyl chloride in the US. But these are mere drops in the ocean compared to the enormity of the problem.
The kReduce, Reuse, Recycley philosophy of waste management has clearly not worked. Zero waste experiments while laudable have at best been episodic and parochial. The reuse approach, which until the 1950s was still the governing aesthetics of consumption, may yet make a dent. For instance, French conglomerate bic alone sells 5 million disposable lighters a day, not to mention millions more made in China. Reusable syringes may not be a good idea, but there is no reason we can’t go back to the days of the rechargeable lighter.
Recycling, seemingly a win-win strategy for both business and environment, still accounts for less than 10 per cent of discarded plastic worldwide. A small fraction of the rest is incinerated (12 per cent) but the bulk (79 per cent) is either landfilled or finds its way into the oceans. Besides, there are serious questions about the hazardous working conditions in recycling factories, most of them located in poor quarters of the developing world.
In a bid to reincarnate the old discredited plastic in a new packaging, last January the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, UK, in partnership with chemical industry giants released a report titled The New Plastics Economy, Rethinking the Future of Plastics. It recommends three radical departures from the usual: one, make all plastics recyclable; two, plug all possible leaks into the environment; and, lastly, replace petroleum-derived plastic raw material with natural ones.
Interesting proposal, but some might argue that it conveniently ignores the ever-expanding elephant in the room: the all-pervasive disposable culture that, as the American cultural historian Jeffrey Meikle put it, makes people feel good about acquiring things but also at the same time put little value on them so as “to encourage their displacement, their disposal, their quick and total consumption.”
Even as the hydra of plastic continues to spread its tentacles, there is no saying how and when will this quixotic plan be put into action. Meanwhile, some optimists are putting their faith in the newly discovered caterpillar that eats plastic. But we all know who the real, very hungry caterpillar is.
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AS SOMEONE REMARKED OMINOUSLY, WE HAVE ALL BECOME A LITTLE PLASTIC NOW
TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE