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)