In a recent development, the Bihar government has introduced a ban on the production, import, storage and distribution of single-use plastic in the State. The move aims at reducing plastic waste and pollution across the State. The move brings the issue of plastic pollution and the vagaries associated with the use of single-use plastic to the fore.
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What is single-use plastic (SUP)?
- The United Nations (UN) defines single-use plastic as a plastic that is made from polymers of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS), polypropylene (PP) or expanded polystyrene (EPS).
- As per India’s Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021, single-use plastic (SUP) is “a plastic commodity intended to be used once for the same purpose before being disposed of or recycled”.
- They are made primarily from fossil fuel-based chemicals (petrochemicals) and are meant to be disposed of right after use. These are also known as disposable plastics and are non-biodegradable.
- Examples include plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, soda and water bottles and most food packaging, plastic sachets, plastic wrappers etc.
Types of single-use plastics (SUP)
As per the European Union’s classification, single-use plastic can be classified into the following categories:
- Polystyrene (PS) and expanded polystyrene (EPS)
- Polystyrene (PS) is used in eyeglasses frames, plastic cups and egg trays.
- Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is used in packaging and building insulation.
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
- It is used in bottles for water, soft drinks, juices and cleaners.
- Polyurethane (PUR)
- It is used in building insulation, pillows, mattresses and insulating foams for fridges.
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
- It is used in window frames, profiles, floor and wall coverings, pipes, cable insulation, garden hoses and inflatable pools.
- Polymers of high-density polyethylene (HDPE)
- It is used in toys, milk bottles, shampoo bottles, pipes and houseware.
- Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and Linear LDPE
- LDPE is used in reusable bags, trays, containers and agricultural film.
- LLDPE is used in food packaging film.
- Polypropylene (PP)
- It is used in food packaging, sweet and snack wrappers, hinged caps, microwave-proof containers, pipes, automotive parts and banknotes.
- These include hub caps, optical fibre, eyeglasses lenses, roofing sheets, touch screens, cable coating in telecommunications, medical implants and surgical devices.
- Since the 1950s, the production of plastic has risen to a large extent and there is a shift from the production of durable plastics to producing plastics for single-use and thrown away.
- The statistics say that in total half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once and then thrown away.
- As per UNEP, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used globally every year.
- Single-use plastics (SUP) have become an integral part of our lives in the present times and can be seen everywhere.
- Currently, around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste is produced worldwide every year.
- As per UNEP, only 9% of plastic waste ever generated has been recycled.
- Estimates say that more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s and around 60% of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment.
- Around 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in oceans every year. Of the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans, around 90% is carried by 10 major rivers of the world such as the Yangtze River, the Ganges, the Nile and others.
- Estimates say that if the current trends continue, the oceans in the world may have more plastics than fish by 2050.
- The very first issue with the usage of single-use plastic is that it is non-biodegradable. It takes years to break up into tiny particles and become microplastics which in turn harm the environment by causing pollution.
- They contaminate the soil and water.
- Microplastics entering the body of animals accumulate in their bodies causing health issues, like punctured organs or fatal intestinal blockages.
- Secondly, it absorbs and releases harmful chemicals.
- As it absorbs chemicals, recycled plastic cannot be used for making food-grade containers.
- When plastics break up into tiny pieces, they release toxic chemicals (additives that were used to shape and harden the plastic) which make their way into our food and water supply.
- Thirdly, these toxic chemicals released during the process of breaking down enter the food system and eventually end up in the bloodstreams of humans and animals.
- These disrupt the endocrine system causing cancer, infertility, birth defects, impaired immunity and many other ailments.
- Chemicals absorbed by large animals due to plastic ingestion may be passed along the food chain harming the entire community of living organisms.
- Fourthly, the production of plastics involves the usage of fossil fuels which may further harm the environment.
- The process of drilling for plastic’s source materials, oil and gas, leads to methane leaking and flaring and is often combined with clearing forests and wetlands which aggravate the effects of greenhouse gases.
- Furthermore, refineries, where crude oil is transformed into plastic, is one of the most greenhouse-gas intensive sectors in manufacturing.
- Lastly, plastics also harm marine life. A majority of plastic waste ends up in oceans killing millions of marine animals and seabirds.
- Around 85% of marine waste is made up of plastics.
- As per UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) report, there is currently between 75-199 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean.
- The same report estimates that in 2016 some 9-14 tons of waste entered the aquatic ecosystem. It is estimated that by 2040, this will have almost tripled to 23-37 million tons per year.
- The use of reusable alternatives could be the first step in this direction. This will not only help in maintaining environmental health but also in managing costs.
- Single-use plastic (SUP) has become an integral part of our lives and thus mere avoidance will not solve the problem. So, the better way to mitigate the environmental impact caused by it is to reuse it in all possible ways.
- Recycling single-use plastic (SUP) and waste management may also help.
- Various stakeholders such as plastic producers, regulators and government must also share the responsibility of managing the problem of plastic.
- Production should involve renewable and recycled sources which in turn may be sustainable.
- Furthermore, the process of recycling and discarding should be environment-friendly.
Hemp plastic – an alternative
- Plastic came as a solution but soon it has become a problem worldwide. Its toxicity, chemically inertness and manufacturing hazards has made it harmful to living organisms and the environment.
- Given these factors, hemp plastic is being considered as a better alternative.
- Hemp plastic is made from non-toxic, biodegradable hemp fibres and is bio-plastic.
- These are biodegradable and recyclable since they are generally produced using the cellulose extracted from the hemp plant.
- The most poisonous derivatives of synthetic plastics such as benzene and others are not present in hemp plastic. Furthermore, as they are produced using hemp and do not involve the usage of fossil fuel as raw material, they are not toxic to the environment.
- Although hemp plastics decompose faster, they are five times stiffer and 2.5 times more durable than traditional plastics. Additionally, they are stronger compared to regular steel, resistant to wear and tear, and highly flexible.
- This is lightweight and has a very high ratio of density to weight. This gives them higher mobility and prominence over traditional plastics.
- Hemp plastics absorb more carbon dioxide than other trees do in a normal 12–14-week development cycle and require less energy than non-renewable energy-based items. These features make it environment-friendly.
- Hemp plastics are costlier than traditional plastics since they require more effort in production than conventional plastics.
- Production of hemp plastics may also cause agricultural imbalance as it may cause cultivators to prefer raw material production for hemp plastics over agricultural cultivation for food crops.
- There is a challenge of favourable environmental conditions and adequate infrastructural facilities for recycling otherwise hemp plastic may also end up being one of the pollutants.
Curbing the usage of single-use plastic (SUP) and its environmental impact is not an easy task. However, governments at local, national and international levels are taking several initiatives to counter its usage and ill-effects. Meanwhile, bio-plastics are being considered as one of the best alternatives but they are not free from challenges. It would be a wise decision if all the stakeholders come together and set common achievable targets to reach the goal of making plastic beneficial rather than a burden.
Q. Is hemp plastic a sustainable alternative to conventional plastics in the long run? Comment.