My title is: Environmental Pollution and Degradation | Plastic Pollution

Plastic Pollution

2019-10-10 | 16 minutes

About Plastic pollution cause and way forward pendulumias

Low cost artificial organic polymers, which are derived from petrochemicals and commonly known as plastics, have become a chief source of pollution and concern for the whole world within a century since their invention. We are increasingly using mainly six types of plastics in our day to day life. They are Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE), Polypropylene (PP), Polystyrene (PS), Expanded polystyrene (EPS) in the form of bottles and bags for packaging and carrying household items like water, milk, shampoo, and potato chips. This has led United Nations to declare “Beat Plastic Pollution” as the theme of World Environment Day 2018 to support and encourage awareness and action all over the world on pollution caused by plastics.

Causes of Plastic Pollution

  • Exponential growth in plastic production and use worldwide
    • It is estimated that the world has produced 6.3 billion tons of plastic from the 1950s to 2018 and as of 2018, about 380 million tons of plastic is manufactured worldwide each year.
    • Plastic production and use have increased exponentially due to its low cost, ease of manufacturing and use and its properties like non-corrosiveness and imperviousness to water.
  • Improper and insufficient plastic waste management
    • As of 2015, about 9% of plastic waste had been recycled worldwide.
    • 12% had been incinerated.
    • 79% had been accumulated in landfills or other parts of the earth.
  • Dumping and accumulation of discarded plastic into oceans of by various countries
    • The Pacific trash vortex or Great Pacific garbage patch in the north central Pacific Ocean has an exceptional collection of plastic waste.
    • The North Atlantic garbage patch and Indian Ocean garbage patch also came to light recently in 2010.
  • Resistance of plastic to natural degradation
    • Natural degradation of plastics occurs through mechanisms like photodegradation, thermo oxidative degradation, hydrolytic degradation, and biodegradation by microbes.
    • The usual time for degradation of plastic varies for different kinds of plastics. On an average, a plastic bottle takes at least 450 years to degrade.


Causes of Plastic Pollution

Data on Plastic Waste Generation in India

Even though Plastic Waste Management Rules mandate all states and UTs to send annual data on plastic waste to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), exhaustive data on plastic waste generated in India is not available. This is because many states and UTs have failed to comply with rules. Based on the extrapolation of a 2015 study of 60 cities, the CPCB has estimated that India generated around 26,000 tons of plastic waste daily in 2011-12.

Effects of Plastic Pollution

Plastic waste gets accumulated in the environment and affects adversely living and non-living components of our earth viz. climate, land, oceans, animals, including humans.

  • Accelerates greenhouse gas emissions and undermines efforts to overcome climate change
    • Production, refining of plastic, and the way it is managed as waste contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. As per Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) report on plastics and environment, plastics will add greenhouse gases equivalent to 850 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere in 2019 and could emit 56 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This will undermine our efforts to overcome climate change and environmental pollution.
  • Effects on land and water sources
    • Plastics persist in soil and release harmful chemicals like lead and cadmium to groundwater reservoirs and surrounding water sources. The polluted water sources have serious consequences for the health of organisms dependent on these water sources for their needs.
  • Effects on oceans and marine organisms
    • Degradation of plastic is very slow in oceans and it gets accumulated there. The toxic components of plastic like cadmium, lead and mercury enter marine organisms like planktons, fishes and ultimately humans through food chain to cause deadly diseases like cancer. Plastic soup is a term that refers to pollution of the sea by plastics.
  • Effects on humans
    • Human populations all over the world are constantly exposed to toxic plastic products through nose, mouth and skin.
    • Components of plastic such as Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates affect fertility, sexual maturation, reproduction and thyroid hormone.
    • Some components of plastic are carcinogenic, while others cause dermatitis when they come in contact with skin.
  • Effects on tourism
    • Plastic waste destroys the aesthetic value of tourist places. As a result, incomes from tourism activities decline, and the maintenance and cleaning cost of tourist sites having a lot of plastic waste causes loss to tourism industry.   
  • Effects due to microplastics
    • Microplastics (plastic pieces that are less than 5mm in length) enter and persist in the natural environment from cosmetics, clothing and other industries.
    • Microplastics can get fixed deeply in tissues of animals like annelids, fishes, corals and humans through the food chain. They affect endocrine system and reproductive health of humans and wildlife.
    • Microplastics may collect and carry Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).


Effects of Plastic Pollution

Plastic Waste Management

Considering the volume and serious environmental health consequences of plastic waste, plastic waste needs proper management through reduce, reuse, refuse and recycle approach, awareness campaigns and use of alternatives.

  • Plastic waste generation needs to be reduced by
    • Preventing use of disposal plastics
    • Taxing or banning the use of plastic bags.
    • Individuals can also contribute to the reduction of plastic waste generation by taking steps to minimize buying of water in plastic bottles by making a habit of carrying reusable water bottles and bags.
  • In addition to reducing, reusing plastic, plastic waste management also involves saying no to plastic. The use of unnecessary disposable plastic needs to be refused immediately by all.
  • Recycling also helps in plastic waste management. India recycles only 60 percent of its plastic waste.

Along with reduce, reuse, refuse and recycle approach, plastic waste management also involves awareness campaigns regarding plastic pollution, its harmful effects and the use of alternatives. Though having cost limitations, alternatives such as biodegradable plastic and other environment-friendly substitutes like cloth/paper/jute bags, areca leaf plates, and paper straws can also help in management of plastic waste and pollution. Recently, researchers from Mexico have converted cactus leaves into biodegradable plastics and Bangladesh has found a method for converting jute fiber into low-cost bio-degradable cellulose sheets called as Sonali.


                                               Plastic Waste Management

Efforts to Reduce Plastic Pollution

  • International Efforts-
    • As per a UN Environment report in 2018, plastic consumption has reduced in at least 30% countries, while 20% failed to reduce consumption.
    • In one of Indonesia’s city, an initiative was taken to collect used plastic bottles in exchange for free bus rides across the city.
    • A "Global Alliance to End Plastic Waste" that aims to clean the environment from existing plastic waste and increase recycling came into existence in January 2019.
    • Governments amended Basel convention, an international convention on the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal to include plastic waste during the Basel Conference of the Parties from 29 April to 10 May 2019


International Efforts and Initiatives to Control Plastic Waste

  • Indian Efforts:
    • On World Environment Day in 2018, India has committed to eliminate single-use plastic by 2022 and 22 States and Union Territories have announced ban on single-use plastics like carry bags, cups, plates, cutlery, straws and thermocol products.
    • The resolution on single-use plastic piloted by India has been adopted by the United Nations Environment Assembly at its fourth meeting, which was held in Nairobi from 11th to 15th March 2019.
    • India is a signatory to MARPOL (International Convention on Prevention of Marine Pollution), which completely bans the dumping of plastic into the ocean.
    • The Indian government has also taken steps to spread awareness on proper plastic utilization through Eco-clubs.
    • Department for Promotion of Industry & Internal Trade (DPIIT) has launched a campaign for plastic waste management under Swachhta Hi Sewa 2019 aiming at collection of plastic waste through nationwide shramdaan on October 2, 2019 and recycling of all plastic waste collected on October 2, 2019 shramdaan in cement kilns by Diwali 2019.
    • Indian Railways have announced to stop single-use plastic and will recharge phones of passengers if they use plastic bottle crushing machines installed at stations.
    • Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP) has established a plant to convert waste plastic to diesel in Dehradun.
    • In order to achieve scientific plastic waste management, Indian government replaced the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 with the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. The rules increased minimum thickness for plastic bags, introduced a collect back system of plastic waste by the producers and brand owners.
    • Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules 2018 have included plastics which are non-recyclable, or non-energy recoverable, or with no alternate use under phasing out of Multilayered Plastic (MLP) and prescribed a central registration system for producer/importer/brand owner registration.
  • Governments across various states of India are also trying to push for the reduction of plastics and use of eco-friendly packaging alternatives.



Efforts and Initiatives to Control Plastic Waste at National Level

  • Efforts by Non-government, For-Profit and Not for Profit Organizations Worldwide-
    • The Ocean Cleanup is one Netherland based non- government environmental engineering organization. It evolves technology to extract plastic from the oceans.
    • California based non-profit organization, Ocean Recovery Alliance, runs a project called Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP), which asks businesses to measure and manage plastic waste.
    • Plastic Bank, a for-profit organization, founded in Canada has stores for people to exchange plastic waste with other goods. Its mission is to reduce plastic waste while helping to remove poverty in developing world.
    • The Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC), a global non-profit organization, is educating the public about the growing rate of plastic pollution.


Non-government, For-Profit and Not For Profit Organizations Worldwide that Focus on Plastic Pollution


Effective and sustainable plastic pollution management will help in achieving following seven targets of Sustainable Development Goals:

  • SDG   3: Good health and well-being
  • SDG   6: Clean water and sanitation
  • SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities
  • SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production
  • SDG 13: Climate action
  • SDG 14: Life below water
  • SDG 15: Life on land

Seven Targets of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) linked to Plastic Pollution

Challenges in Mitigating Plastic Pollution and Plastic Waste

  • Poor compliance with existing international instruments
    • Compliance with existing international legally binding instruments that address plastic pollution is low.
  • Difficulties in the recycling of plastic waste
    • Separation of plastics from non-plastic wastes,
    • Low quality of recycled plastic than virgin plastic and
    • Lack of sufficient recycling infrastructure.
  • Continuously growing use
    • Plastic is increasingly being used in the packaging, construction, and electronics industry and vehicles and household equipment.


Challenges in Mitigating Plastic Pollution and Plastic Waste

Way Forward

There is no single-step solution to the growing problem of plastic pollution. Formulating national action plan on plastic pollution, initiatives to revamp existing recycling infrastructure, incentives to the recyclers, encouraging sustainable alternatives of plastic among the public are some of the steps required for bringing a change in situation concerning plastic pollution in India and world. As 40 percent of plastic waste generated in India goes untreated into the environment, India needs robust and stringent waste management tools and rules to emerge as plastic waste free nation on planet earth.