Plastic for the Eco-Era

Plastic is a daily companion, even in the remotest of villages. The roads may be not be paved, means of transport may be scarce, but there is bound to be a cluster of small stores that inevitably sell the same products – tobacco, fried snacks, water pouches, Balaji potato chips – all wrapped up in plastic. Whether it’s North India or South India, the story seems to be the same.

The sheer affordability of plastic is what has made these types of amenities commonplace. But it is also the this very characteristic that has led to the accumulation of megatons of plastic in landfills and garbage dumps – plastic that will outlive us and possibly our offspring, and contribute to environmental degradation in the process.

So what’s the alternative? Ireland has started taxing the usage of plastic shopping bags, cutting consumption by 90%, and raising millions of euros in revenue in the process. In a few states in India (Himachal Pradesh, for example), the usage of polyethylene bags is completely banned. These types of methods seem to suggest that what is required is behavioral change – if plastic is here to stay, then we must find ways to minimize its usage, maybe by abstaining from buying products wrapped in obscene amounts of utterly pointless plastic packaging, or using cloth instead of plastic. That’s one option.

Another option is to revolutionize the manufacture of plastic completely, or, alternatively (especially in the face of an oil deficit), transition to an equally viable substitute. Long-term thinking, I know, especially since practically everything we consume uses plastic in some form, and leads to affordability in areas as seemingly disparate as medical care and transportation. But then, it’s the same argument we face with regard to the usage of oil – the question is no longer, “how do we transition to an economy that is less oil-dependent?”, but rather, “we must do so in order to sustain existence as we understand it.”

Fortunately, there are glimmers on the horizon that could potentially revolutionize the way we view plastic. One of them is an experiment being conducted by the Defense Food Research Laboratory (DFRL), Mysore, which has led to the development of a “packaging film” that degrades within 100 days. According to A.S. Bawa, DFRL Director, “various biodegradable films, based on granular starches like potato, tapioca, rice, corn, and others incorporated in Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE), are under development.” Currently, the plan is to experiment with the plastic in the military sector, and then potentially transfer knowledge and technology to the civil sector.

Source: Hindustan Times, May 30, 2008 (from “News You Can Use,” a print publication by Communication for Development and Learning)

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2 Responses

  1. To add to the hopes, here is one in which used plastic is reused to make better and longer lasting roads. (old article)

    http://www.goodnewsindia.com/index.php/Supplement/article/plastics-recycling-is-out-in-the-streets/P0/

    From my own pseudo-research, I get a feeling that the plastic problem in India lies in the ostensibly non-existent recycling infrastructure. If we get the infrastructure working well, then we would be in a better position to know if usage is actually a problem.

    With bad or no infrastructure, how good would reduced usage be? It appears that it would only post-pone the inevitable problem (of things getting into food-chain and all that).

    Here is another read on “Myth and Reality of Plastics”

    http://www.envis-icpe.com/mythsnrealities.html

    This should probably be taken with a pinch of salt since
    – a few (but not all) are unconvincing
    – funded by those who have business interest in plastic

    Neverthless, an eye-opener in some places. At least a starting point for further investigation.

  2. As always, thank you for your insightful comments Badhri.

    You speak lucidly to the complexity of the issue. From my experience, the problem is multi-fold, and intersects not only with usage and disposal, but also (dis)incentives for manufacturing / not manufacturing plastic, both from a commercial and regulatory perspective. The solution, therefore, would need to be mutli-pronged, and involve not only reduced manufacture and usage, but proper disposal as well, as you point out.

    Again, this is a question of reaching a tipping point, where government, private, public, and community objectives align in the interest of environmental preservation. In light of the Indian government’s economic development stance, and their recent ambivalence with regards to environmental preservation (specifically climate change), the prospects for the establishment of a fruitful partnership with the public sector seem bleak. But initiatives such as this, as well as those mobilized by the citizen sector, hold immense promise.

    My question, for all our readers, then, is this – how can we start taking personal responsibility?

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