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Planet or Plastic: Some thoughts on World Environment Day 2018

Published : Tuesday, 5 June, 2018 at 12:00 AM  Count : 597

Dr Kanan Purkayastha

Dr Kanan Purkayastha

5 June is the World Environment Day. On 5-16 June, 1972 under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) a conference on the human environment was held in Stockholm. Its goal was to address the challenge of preserving and enhancing the human environment. Later that year, on 15 December, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution designating 5 June as the World Environment Day and urging "Governments and the organizations in the United Nations system to undertake on that day every year world-wide activities reaffirming their concern for the preservation and enhancement of the environment, with a view to deepening environmental awareness and to pursuing the determination expressed at the Conference." 

Also on 15 December 1972, the General Assembly adopted another resolution that led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the specialized agency on environmental issues. This is the way we get the World Environment Day (WED). This year this day is organized around a theme "Beat Plastic Pollution". Every WED has a different global host country, where the official celebrations take place.

This year host country is India. UNEP invites us all to consider how we can make changes in our everyday lives to reduce the heavy burden of plastic pollution on our environment and our own health.  In fact we welcome plastic as a wonderful material when first synthetic polymer Bakelite was developed using fossil fuels in 1907. So why plastic, once became a fantastic product, is now problem for us?

The world-wide production of plastic is currently at 35 kilogram per person per year. On average, it is increasing by 3 per cent per year. 35 per cent of the plastic is used for packaging, followed by the construction sector and vehicle manufacture. About 40 per cent of the plastic, primarily packaging material, is being disposed within 1 year.  In his book, How to give up plastic (2018), McCallum mentioned that 120 billion plastic bottle is made by Coca-cola every year.

McCallum also suggested that 12.7 million tonnes of plastic is entering the ocean every year. 1 rubbish truck of plastic enters the ocean every minute. The scale of plastic problem became clear in 1997 when US oceanographer Charles Moore came across a huge area of floating trash, now known as 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch', as he sailed from Hawaii to California. It was soon found that other oceans contained similar concentrations of rubbish.

According to Reuters, the Pacific Ocean's Trash Isles, where plastic waste has been accumulated to an area the size of France, is at the centre of the campaign to lobby the UN to recognise ocean plastic as a country. Former US Vice President, Environmentalist and Nobel Laureate Al Gore agreed to become the first honorary citizen of the Trash Isles in the Pacific Ocean.

The New Scientist in a report (published on 4 May 2018) suggests that the population density near coastlines and the efficiency of waste management determine how much plastic waste leaks into the ocean. 5 countries that are responsible for approximately 80 per cent of plastic waste entering the oceans are China, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. However, in 2017 Greenpeace coordinated the cleanup effort in Manila bay, where they documented the brand of those plastic wastes and discovered that these wastes were related to three multinational company- Unilever, Nestle and Proctor and Gamble's product. In 2017, the Ellen Macarthur foundation estimated that by 2050 there would be more plastic in the oceans than fish.

It is estimated that there is already 150 million tonnes of plastic already in the ocean. Approximately a third of the plastic in the ocean comes from microfibers which can be released when washing our cloths. 80 per cent of the plastic in the ocean originates on land. Modelling shows that plastic floating on the ocean in UK ends up in the Arctic. In Bangladesh plastic from lands and river ends up in the Bay of Bengal and creating massive pressure on already stressed ecosystem. Arthur C Clarke wrote, 'How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when clearly it's ocean.' It is true that our planet looks blue from space because the ocean covers 71 percent of the surface. We would not be here if it is otherwise. So, pollution of ocean is a threat to our existence.

One of the problems around the world is transports of million tonnes of plastic.  Al Gore in his book, The Future (2013), mentioned that 'there is a thriving black market in the illegal disposal of waste particularly shipments from developed countries to poor countries.' Al Gore further added that 'in European Union export of plastic waste-almost 90 percent of it to china increased by more than 250 percent in the last decade.'

As an example in 2014 UK manufacture 2220 kilo tonnes of waste. Out of this 328 kilo tonnes were recycled, 514 kilo tonnes were exported and 1378 kilo tonnes were disposed off. In 2017 China announced that it would no longer receive plastic waste from other countries. Even though the resistance of accepting waste is clearly evident, Al Gore maintained that 'the actual amount of waste produced each day is more than the body weight of all seven billion people.'

Problem of plastic is manifold. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by Australian scientists in 2015 estimated that over 90 per centof the Seabirds were likely to have plastic in their guts. Bioaccumulation of toxin from plastics is a big problem.

Plastic leaches chemicals such as BPA, also known as 4,4'-dihydroxy-2,2-diphenylpropane. BPA is used in combination with other chemicals in the manufacture of plastics and resins, which mimics oestrogen and has been linked to low sperm, breast and prostate cancer. In the ocean, plastic attracts persistent organic pollutants, which are naturally occurring toxins. These accumulate over time meaning that any creature ingests this then toxin transfer up the food chain to human body.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Register (ATSDR) Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a man-made chemical is generally used in plastic and other consumer products as a flame retardant. Very little is known about the health effects of PBDEs, but results from some studies suggests that there is an association between PBDE exposure and altered neurodevelopment. PBDEs can be released into the air, water, and soil.

In air, PBDEs is present as both the vapour phase and as particles; eventually PBDEs settle to soil or water. Sunlight can degrade some PBDEs. PBDEs do not dissolve easily in water, but stick to particles and settle to the bottom of river or lakes. Various food items, including fish, meat, and dairy products, have been shown to contain low concentrations of PBDEs. Al Gore, in his book The Future states that 'the presence of flame retardant in the tissues of Americans is an example of the imbalance of power in US decision making and the dominance of corporate interests over the public interest.'

How plastic contribute to climate change? Except very small amount of plastics derived from plant-based feedstocks, plastics are made from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, which release toxic emissions when extracted from the earth. Drilling puts pollutants such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide, benzene, ozone and others into the air. Methane gas can leak during production, which causes even worse greenhouse effects than carbon dioxide. However, we can do some calculation about this.

The carbon footprint of plastic is approximately 6 kg carbon dioxide from per kg of plastic. As an example the production of 1 kg of polyethylene requires the equivalent of 2 kg of oil for energy and raw material. Low density version of polythene is used for packaging like foils, trays and plastic bags. Burning 1 kg of oil creates about 3 kg of carbon dioxide during production and incineration. An average plastic bag with 33 gm of weight using 5 bags per person per month can contribute 1 kg of carbon dioxide in atmosphere. So, if we think about several billion users of plastic bag, then its contribution to greenhouse gas emission is enormous. Plastic manufacturing sector is estimated to use 8 percent of yearly global oil production.

What are the solutions? Bangladesh is the first country in the world to implement a ban on thin plastic bags in 2002, after it was found that plastic substances played a key role in clogging drainage systems during disastrous flooding. Other countries followed Bangladesh such as Morocco ban plastic bag in 2016 and Kenya in 2017. These bans require enforcement. As an example Morocco confiscated nearly 500 tons of plastic bags after the ban came into force in 2016.

In 2014 the state of Illinois passed the world's first ban on microbeads, after studies showed that the tiny plastic spheres are a common pollutants floating on the surface of the Great Lakes. In January 2018 UK government banned production of microbeads in cosmetics and cleaning products. Much of the oceans' plastic is found near heavily populated coastlines, but it is concentrated in five 'gyres'. An organization called 'The Ocean Cleanup' estimated the floating debris in a gyre and made a plan to cleared it up in five to ten years without harming wildlife.

There are free market economic approach and technological approach to the solution. According to the first approach we may leave the problem to the individual to decide what to do. This approach will force them to decide either to adjust their behaviour or wiped out, which is according to the economist Adam Smith 'the idea of the invisible hand'. As an example, Britain's departmental stores such as Tesco introduced 5 pence charge for carrier bag couple of years ago.

Greenpeace UK volunteers after a survey reported that within one year of introduction of a price for carrier bag there was a 40 per cent reduction of carrier bags on UK beaches. It is estimated that the approach of using refill has prevented over 2.1 million single use plastic bottles from being used in the UK in just 3 years. Another economist named Milton Freedman pointed out that there are instances in which market fail. Pollution is a classic example.

People keep over-producing pollution because they are not paying the cost of dealing with it.In this problem free market economist will argue that the way to reduce pollution is to create a market for it. As an example create a tradable emission right. Newlight Technologies in California has invented a carbon capture technology that combines air with methane based greenhouse gas emissions to produce a material called 'AirCarbon'. It is a carbon negative material that can be used instead of oil to produce a range of plastics that can compete with oil based plastics in terms of their impact on climate change.

In the technology front we can think of several emerging technologies. Graphene is a new kind of material, which can substitute plastic. Such shift of material use would seriously damage the demand for fossil fuel but that is what decarbonisation needs. Bioplastic made from naturally occurring substance is another option. In order to manage the existing waste already in our environment, we may employ thermal process to break down all the organic molecules, including plastics, into reusable hydrocarbons. We need to stop dumping, since that just breaks down the plastics into smaller pieces over time.

Above all, plastic is not only a threat to human health but also a threat to our climate and civilization. A very powerful comments made by Al Gore in his book The Future that 'Leaders in civic society must also place a political and social price on the dishonest distribution of false information about this existential crisis by cynical global warming deniers, many of whom know better but are trying to preserve destructive yet highly profitable business models by sowing confusion, false doubt, and political discord to delay the recognition of reality and prevent the congealing of a consensus.' We should be conscious about such false information and confusion. Plastic is no longer a fantastic product. We want planet not plastic. We should think about the solution of the problem at its source instead of controlling it at the receptor.

The writer is an Environmental Advisor in UK and a Fellow of the Institution of Environmental Sciences in UK

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