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Vol. 23 No. 1 - January 2017

Plastics and the Environment

By: Indian Centre for Plastics in the Environment, Mumbai*

Scientists have termed plastics as a marvel of modern chemistry. They have declared discovery and development of plastics as one of the greatest achievements chemistry has ever made.

Development of Synthetic Plastics (henceforth termed as ‘plastics’) began during the second half of Nineteenth Century, close to the time when industrialization began in the Europe and slowly in rest of the world. By the middle of Twentieth Century many major scientific discovery and inventions took place in the development of many types of plastics although the volume remained at a low sphere. However since around 1970’s, the volume of production of plastics materials increased at a very fast rate and by 2015 the production at a level of around 250 million Tons is close to that of Steel on the basis of surface area covered.

Plastics have gained widespread applications from the common household goods to high technology instruments. Plastics have made significant contribution in the area of medical safety and health care. Light weight yet tough, inert, excellent barrier properties, ease of processing into flexible or rigid products, transparency when desired, low consumption of energy during its production and transportation - all these attributes have made plastics an inseparable entity of the modern human life. Plastics reduce the emission of green house gases and leave lesser Carbon Footprint on the earth compared to the alternative materials. Plastics save green house gas emissions and save the earth from global warming. Use of plastics in Piping, Automobiles, Insulation and Packaging applications saved the earth from Green House Gases to the tune of about 1.0 GT in the year 2005. (McKinsey study for ICCA - International Council of Chemical Associations).

Plastics pipes consume least electrical energy to discharge equal volume of irrigation water for agricultural purpose compared to pipes made of alternate materials. Plastics have replaced wood in many application areas saving millions of trees from felling. Packaging is the single largest application area of plastics. Positive attributes have clearly established ‘preferred’ status for plastics in packaging. Protection, preservation, light weight, hygiene, cost effectiveness, ease of availability, its amenability to be produced indifferent forms, sizes and shapes and many others, make plastics an ideal material of choice for food as well as non-food packaging.

Although plastics are employed in myriad applications where they actually conserve natural resources, there are some issues which have been surrounding the material ever since its growth rate increased.

First it is said that plastics are derived from nonrenewable resources, viz. oil and hence the usage of plastics should be curbed.

The reality is that only about 4% of crude oil is used in the entire chain of petrochemicals of which plastics is only a part. Moreover use of light weight plastics materials in various applications including in automobiles, reduces the consumption of fuels to such an extent that it more than compensates its use of the crude oil for its production. While the economy of usage of crude oil is always welcome, curbing the use of plastics is not the solution.

The second aspect of criticism relates to the alleged health hazards arising out of usage of plastics.

Plastic products are being subjected to in-depth scientific analysis and they have clearly proved that plastics do not cause any health hazard. In fact plastic products have been implanted into vital organs like heart valves clearly disproving the myths. Plastics are used for packaging of live saving blood and vital pharmaceutical products. Plastics Disposable Syringes inject the live saving drugs into human and animal bodies. There are clear international and national regulations / standards for usage of plastics that comes into contact with food stuffs, pharmaceutical products and drinking water etc. Therefore, much of the alleged health hazards are pure scare mongering and not based on scientific facts. The issue of dioxin emission during the processing / burning of plastics has also been studied and documented to indicate that plastics and dioxin are not directly related. It is also documented that air and water emissions of various gases and other products during the production of plastics are much lesser compared to the alternative materials for same applications

The third major criticism is its non-biodegradability.

While it is true that plastics are not amenable to biodegradation like other organic matters, many alternate materials such as glass, metals are also not biodegradable. Moreover, many of the applications for plastics arise from the need for the product to be long-lasting. Again, LCA and other studies carried out the world over clearly prove that the energy required for production of plastics is much lower than that of alternate materials. Thus the production and usage of plastics demand minimum energy in comparison to other materials and therefore non-biodegradability alone cannot be a consideration while deciding on the appropriate needs of a material.

Biodegradable / Compostable Plastics have been developed since as early as in the Seventies (1970’s). In fact most of the major manufacturers of conventional plastics raw materials from Natural Gas, also manufacture compostable plastics for limited and specific applications which are difficult for recycling; for example mulch film in agricultural application. It is evident that the degradation / composting process releases carbon dioxide in aerobic condition and methane and carbon dioxide in anaerobic condition. Both the situations are not desirable as both carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases. Conventional Plastics recycling do not create such situation. Recycling is preferred compared to biodegradation / composting due to fact that recycling help resource management. Compostable Plastics do not degrade or disappear in to the soil of its own. It will remain in the open environment if not treated appropriately. Moreover, composting takes several months even when handled properly. Some other type of degradable plastics has not been established as environment friendly.

All these reasons have resulted in keeping the production / demand for compostable / biodegradable plastics at a miniscule level compared to that of conventional plastics world over.

Lastly, management of plastics waste is held against the usage of plastics. Plastics are blamed as the major cause of Solid Waste problem.

Undoubtedly this is a serious issue mainly due to the poor littering habit of general mass and inadequate infrastructure for management of solid waste. Due to this we find all types of dry waste including plastic waste littered in our surroundings. Even wet waste also is found littered around the street corners and Plastics and the Environment elsewhere. The reality is that plastics waste form much less than 10% of the MSW stream in major Indian cities. There is no problem of disposing the plastics waste when it is collected in segregated form at source of waste generation. Plastics waste can be 100% recycled by one process or other. Very thin plastic bags, though recyclable, are often left behind by the waste pickers when littered due to economic reason. These very light weight plastic film waste do not pay a reasonable return to the waste pickers and hence they avoid picking these up. In India, rigid plastics waste do not create any waste management issue, as these are collected by the waste pickers in the informal sector for selling to the waste dealers / recyclers for earning their livelihood. To avoid the problem of flexible plastics waste management, MoEF, Government of India has come up with Rules restricting the thickness of plastic carry bags. Manufacturers and users of multilayered plastics packaging materials have been assigned the responsibility for assisting the civic bodies for setting up collection centres for plastics waste. It is required that the government rules are implemented effectively.

Another most important issue is the plastics waste in the sea and river water. Marine litter is found in all oceans in the world – not only in most populated areas but also in area far away from the obvious source of plastics waste. According to the United Nation’s Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP), land based sources account for 80% of marine pollution, rest being from the ships. Although there is conflicting figures on the volume of marine plastics waste pollution, however there is no denying that the problem is definitely serious. There are concerns on how to avoid the marine pollution. Illegal dumping, proper education on anti-littering near the sea beaches are among the challenges. Recovery of plastics waste from the oceans also is possible and is actually practiced in case of larger floating waste. More and more attention and efforts are required to address the issue. The real solution lies in the segregation of dry and wet solid waste at the source, creation of efficient solid waste management infrastructure coupled with establishment of recycling centres as plastics can be recycled to produce articles of critical and non – critical applications for mass use augmenting the concept of resource management.

Apart from the conventional Mechanical Recycling process, alternate processes of plastics recycling also are required to be encouraged. Feedstock Recycling and Energy Recovery are very important technologies. Low-end plastics waste, which often is abandoned by the waste pickers and conventional recyclers for difficulty in segregation and cleaning, thus creating a waste management problem, can be disposed of safely by co-processing in cement kilns. Industrial fuel can be produced from all types of plastics waste by pyrolysis process. Plasma recycling process can resolve the issue of disposal of domestic hazardous waste like sanitary napkins, baby and adult nappies. Plastics waste can be used as an efficient reducing agent for the manufacture of steel. Plastics waste has been used to construct better quality asphalt roads. All these processes have been successfully tried and established. Government of India has made it mandatory to use plastics waste as per specifications laid down by Indian Road Congress for constructing all bitumen roads in the country. Use of plastics waste in co-processing in cement kilns has been approved by the regulatory authorities.

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This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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