Plastic or Planet?

Client: The News International

As Rachel Carson, the author of ‘Silent Spring’, rightfully says: “[ours is an] era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged”. 

Tenet has remained constant: we’ve always focused on the intersection of people, processes, and information. As the Association for Intelligent Information Management, we help organizations put their information to work.

To this effect, 300 million tonnes of plastic have been produced each year and a million plastic bottles are bought every minute across the globe. Simultaneously, production is still expected to increase by 20 percent by 2021. Why? For ‘cheap’ and ‘efficient’ production.

Plastic does not decompose. A single plastic bottle may take up to 400 years to decompose, if at all. That is an estimated seven generations of human lives. Every single piece of plastic produced since the dawn of production still exists today. Given the amount that has been dumped on our land and oceans, this supposed decomposition could take light years for us to be entirely plastic-free. By 2050, our oceans will have more plastic within them than fish.

Ocean gyres, which provide a large system of circulating oceanic currents, are filled with plastic waste that is circulating. This waste is unwittingly devoured by sea creatures and birds alike. Chris Jordan, a photographer, triggered worldwide dismay with his famous picture of decaying Laysan albatross chicks with their bellies full of plastic material.

Seawater also breaks down some of this plastic. This means small particles of plastic have embedded themselves in our soil, fresh water and seawater. It already constitutes every atom of our existence. The seafood that we are eating is already contaminated, making it untenable as a food source. This poses a major risk for developing nations that are dependent on it.

However, littering isn’t the only problem. The production process of this material is also a source of concern. The carbon and water footprint of plastic manufacturing will make your skin crawl. Plastic accounts for between six and eight percent of global oil consumption.

The next wars will be fought over water and for every one-litre plastic bottle produced, three litres of water is used. When we think about production, you must also account for the carbon footprint associated it – electricity usage, transport and material excavation. When multinationals outsource themselves into our country, we unwittingly allow them to do so for short-term economic purposes without realising the gargantuan economic, health and safety repercussions awaiting the future. The dispute over the Indus, climate change, water depletion and the industrial contamination are a few frightening aspects.

In Pakistan, purchased items are usually placed in a separate shopping bag. Often two plastic bags are used to hold a single item. These bags are strewn across different parts of the country. When the rest of the world is trying to do away with polyethylene bags, our prized departmental stores are still making use of these bags.  

For many, the only viable way to rid ourselves of this menace is to thrust it into in a furnace. However, this spells an even greater disaster for our atmosphere, especially at the current GHG levels. Alternative solutions are still being explored.

Scientists have discovered that wax worms can chew large amounts of plastic in less than 40 minutes. Federica Bertocchini, a developmental biologist at the University of Cantabria in Spain, discovered this new fact while cleaning out her beehives two years ago. These worms reside in honeycombs where they feed on wax and they are the larval form of a small moth. They can do this as both wax and plastic are polymers. They have an enzyme that converts polyethylene into ethylene glycol.

Later, it was discovered that another kind of wax worm can also do this. However, it would produce different by-products. This could mean there are a number of insect species out there that can potentially degrade plastic.

However, if these insects be used for this purpose, what would it mean if they flourish without control? Would it result in another biblical plague of locusts?

Until we can truly figure out how to rid ourselves of the existing plastic that aimlessly floats in our oceans, we must practically begin applying the 3 Rs: reuse, reduce and recycle. We can also reuse old plastic bags and bottles that are already lying around in our homes. This will discourage people from using them at stores.

Another way to discourage the use and sale of plastics is by imposing a price on each bag. In the US, a charge of 50 cents per bag was enough to dissuade buyers. A similar imposition can be made in Pakistan of between Rs 10 and Rs50. Hyperstar has already adopted this commendable approach to become more ecologically sound.

Recycling is even more paramount. Companies, such as Waste Busters, pick up trash from people’s homes. All they need to do is separate the plastic waste into a separate bag and compost all organic material. If people begin recycling more, more recycling companies will spring up. All we need to do is create a market. Recycling has made serious breakthroughs, such as Levis Strauss manufacturing waste into comfy denim jeans.

Industries can also cut their costs if they simply buy back the material they have already used – be it glass or plastic. They will not have to buy new material each time. Instead, they can initiate a campaign to have their customers return their materials efficiently. Education is the real and final piece to the puzzle. It is essential that the new generation knows what environmental costs their purchases come at. Without ecological consciousness, a change in attitudes appears to be unlikely.

About the Author

Azal Zahir has a Master’s degree in Environmental Education from New York University. She is Founder of AbadTak, an environmental education organization in Pakistan. She has considerable experience in education, research, writing and management.