How Plastic Waste Chokes Our Cities And Impacts Our Health

plastic waste

It is all around us, in our homes, in our kitchens, on our desks, in our bags, floating like a new continent in the Pacific ocean, living eternal life in our garbage disposal and yet, we don’t seem to understand yet just how damaging all the plastic in our life can be for us.

A recent report states, and scarily so, that unknowingly, we consume five grams of microplastics in a week, they helpfully tell us that is the same weight as a credit card. The study commissioned by the WWF found that we take in almost 2,000 particles of microplastic in a week. Some of it, purely through inhalation and drinking water. Bottled water has 22 times more microplastics than tap water, so if you’re drinking only bottled water, you are drinking 130,000 particles of microplastics versus someone who drinks tap water. Of course, drinking tap water is not recommended in India yet, given we haven’t yet reached that level of purification but water direct from the filter would be the closest we can come to it.

The first synthetic plastic was produced in 1907 but commercial production of plastic began only in the 1950s. For something that has been in existence for less than a century, plastics have overrun the earth. The annual production of plastics was roughly equal to the mass of almost two-thirds of the world’s entire population. Plastic is impacting our marine life and wildlife. Highly developed countries generate more plastic waste per person, but they have efficient waste management systems which less developed countries don’t. India ranks 12th globally on the list of countries who mismanage plastic waste.

A recent report states, and scarily so, that unknowingly, we consume five grams of microplastics in a week, they helpfully tell us that is the same weight as a credit card.

The research on the effect of micro and nanoparticles on human health is still nascent. It is of concern though. Plastic nanoparticles can enter the human body through water, consuming marine products containing plastic, through the skin, or inhaling nanoparticles from the air. Plastics can be passed up through to the food chain, for example when animals and humans consume fish which have consumed plastic. Since microplastics are insoluble, they absorb environmental contaminants, and these could get biomagnified as they go up the food chain.

Says Dharmesh Shah, Plastic Policy Advisor with Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), “The impacts of plastics on human health remains poorly understood despite being the most pervasive man-made material to date. So far plastics and related health impacts have been understood in a fragmented manner i.e. single product use (impact of Styrofoam) or exposure pathways (chemical exposure from Teflon coating in cookware). To understand the impacts of plastic on human health we would need a life cycle approach – from the production, use to disposal. Humans are exposed to a large variety of toxic chemicals and microplastics through inhalation, ingestion and direct skin contact, all along the plastic lifecycle. A pioneering study on the health impacts of plastics has been released by a coalition of organizations led by the Center for International Environmental Law (CEIL) which is available online.”

How do plastics affect our health? To quote from a report in DownToEarth. Org, “..soda and water bottles and dinner trays are made from PolyErythrol Tetraphthalet (PET). Heavy metals like Antimony (Sb) are contaminants, which may leach from PET bottles into the water. Brominated compounds are also found in PET bottles and can cause paranoia and other psychotic symptoms.

HighDensityPolyEthylene(HDPE) used in cups and milk jugs releases a chemical that can alter the cells of children and infants. PolyVinylChloride (PVC), also used in bottles and containers, contains phthalates and lead. Phthalates can disrupt the endocrine system. LowDensityPolyEthylene (LDPE) can also leach chemicals and polystyrine can release suspected carcinogens. BisphenolA (BPA) and bisphenolS (BPS) are used to produce a variety of plastic products and they are endocrine disruptors. They are suspected to increase the risk of cancers, obesity, heart disease and diabetes.”

The impact of plastics on human health remains poorly understood despite being the most pervasive man-made material to date. – Dharmesh Shah

Says Bharati Chaturvedi, Founder and Director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, “Science tells us that plastics are way worse than we earlier believed. Previously, we imagined that plastics had these problems: they could choke cows and deer, etc, they would lie in the soil and prevent any plant growth and that they would leach additives, many of which are toxic. A case in point is Bisphenol A, an endocrine disruptor you find in many plastics, esp in PVC plastics. All these are still valid, but now we have more things to worry about: that old adage about how long it takes for plastics to break down doesn’t matter. When they do break down, they turn into microplastics, (less than 5 mm) which are very, very harmful. Human beings are now consuming plastics in food like salt and drinking water, stored in plastics. We are likely taking in 50,000 pieces of microplastics every year. We know that animals, including fish, find that their metabolisms are impaired and they often develop lesions, liver disorders, and many other irreversible health issues when they ingest microplastics. It is likely we will be hit at the cellular level too. What we do know also, is that newer and newer plastic applications are also contributing to toxins in our lives. The plastics like in this laptop contain flame retardants, which are very hard to contain while recycling, and once they escape, they are poisonous for human beings.”

We still have to get an accurate grip on our plastic consumption in India. According to news reports only 14 of India’s 35 regional pollution boards filed information on plastic waste generation in 2017-18. The Central Pollution Control Board estimate of plastic waste thus does include around sixty percent of the country. We consume 16.5 million trucks of plastic per year according to a report from PlastIndia Foundation. 43 percent of single-use packaging will get into the garbage. 80 percent of all plastic manufactured in India will be discarded. These reach our landfills, drains, rivers, and seas, apart from leaching into our soil and water, contaminating them. We currently recycle only 4 million tonnes of plastic produced and are set to cross 20 million tonnes of consumption by next year.

How we dispose of our plastic is also an issue. Plastics are often part of the garbage that is disposed in dumps which then leach into the ground water. Says Shah, “We have no landfills in India. What we refer to as landfills are open uncontrolled dumps that offer no protection against groundwater contamination. A Scientific landfill is a hole in the ground layered with clay, concrete and impermeable plastic liner to prevent leachate from contaminating the groundwater. The waste dumps cities like Delhi and Mumbai rely on are illegal and need to be shut down and the de-contaminated. Having said that, leachate is a highly corrosive substance that can breach the layers of a scientific landfill. The trick is to keep the one thing that causes leachate out of the landfills – organic waste. This is also why SWM Rules 2016 prohibit disposal of organic/food waste into landfills. So to address the issue of leachate, we just need to follow the law.”

Single use plastics have been banned in four Indian states, and of these Maharashtra reported a dip of 40 percent in the amount of plastic waste generated in the months subsequent to the implementation of the ban.

An interesting use of waste plastic in India is in the use of it for the construction of roads. Since 2015, we have built approximately 100,000 km of roads using plastic waste. According to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, one tonne of plastic waste is mixed with nine tonnes of bitumen per kilometer of road. Waste plastic can replace 10 to 30 percent of the bitumen used. These roads are also cost-effective, and keep waste plastic away from landfills and entering our water bodies.

How must we further reduce our dependence on plastic given it seems to be everywhere we look? Shah calls for tough action over mere awareness as a way to tackle the plastics crisis. “Let’s face it, it is an addiction and we need to treat it like one. Can addiction be treated by awareness alone? We are at a stage in the crisis where awareness is too little and too late. De-addiction calls for tough action and we are seeing that in the form of bans on several disposable items like bags, straws, etc.”

Which some amount of concerted action on reducing plastic consumption can come from the government, through bans on plastic bags and such, the main driver for change will come when there is the realization that our dependence is harming us.

Human beings are now consuming plastics in food like salt and drinking water, stored in plastics. We are likely taking in 50,000 pieces of microplastics every year. – Bharati Chaturvedi

Says Shah, “When it comes to the plastic crisis, it’s a contest between convenience and survival. So far we have collectively chosen convenience. It is a dangerous social phenomenon like air pollution where we know it’s killing us but we continue living in cities that are polluted and do things that make the crisis worse (like burn coal and drive SUVs). As far as individual actions are concerned – eliminating plastic bags, cutlery, etc is the most doable low hanging fruit. Having said that, we are at a point where we need people to engage in much more than individual action and engage in political decision making allows the continued use of cheap single-use plastics. How can we hold companies that continue to peddle cheap disposable packaging accountable for their business practices?” Bharati Chaturvedi concurs.

She says, “It’s too late for soft measures. I would say reduce with a vengeance and only then consider recycling. 1. Walk around your house and identify the plastics you use. Which ones can you do without? You may be able to get rid of woven plastic shoe bags (which look like white or beige cloth). Look at the kitchen in particular and 2. Get rid of cling film, plastic water bottles, plastic jars, and other plastic containers. Don’t have to trash everything in one day, but make a written list and as the time comes, replace these with steel or glass alternatives. 3. Check out your clothes. I like good clothes, but increasingly, I am trying to remove plastics from clothing. So I avoid sequins and such bubbles because they are really plastic. Also, did it occur to you that many of the textiles we wear are not natural, so when we get rid of them, they behave like plastics? They cannot even be recycled. Therefore, while I am not saying wear clothes without lycra etc but I am saying make a conscious choice. Try to shop for natural materials and buy fewer synthetic fabrics. 4. Birthday parties- something many young moms organize. Let’s find ways to get plastic free. Balloons are plastic type materials, and you can get a local toy wala to make paper pinwheels. You have to insist on no gift wrapping in shiny paper, also a type of plastic. You can stop using disposable cutlery. 5. Finally, how do we all shop? No one has much spare time, but it’s possible to buy larger quantities and store it well, so you use less packaging material. Often, the shiny, printed packaging (multilayered plastics) is the one item all munchies are packed in. These cannot be recycled. Can we avoid these? It’s hard, but the planet is growing not in the water, but in plastics. Finally, whatever plastics you have, hand them over along with paper and cardboard, to the local waste picker.”

It is high time we stopped being ostriches about how plastics are impacting our environment and our health, the time for awareness has long passed, it is now time for hard action. And if we cannot impact overall policy changes, what we definitely can do is to walk the talk in our individual lives and create small circles of impact within our community and our neighborhood. After all, as they say, it is the individual drops that make the ocean.

Also Read: The New Pollution Migrants: Choosing Health Over City Life

Kiran Manral is the Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV