Is plastic pollution our Waterloo moment? Look around, there’s more

The Earth Day, which falls on April 22, is an occasion to remind us of the reality that we are just a spec on the timeline of this unique planet, but, as the smartest species ever, it is our responsibility to sustain its liveability for all living beings

Single-use plastic has emerged as the biggest challenge facing our planet, or is it? Well, if you believe the government, social organisations, media et al there is no other way to save Planet Earth but to get rid of plastic rotting (not literally) in our oceans, soil and food chain.

Poor sabji-fruit wallahs and grocery shop owners are blamed, ridiculed and even persecuted for selling their produce in thin plastic bags (less than 50 microns thick). But if you ask them why? They say: “Kyunkee log mangte hain (because people ask for it)”. Nobody, sadly, is willing to buy their argument. You know why? Because it is highly inconvenient to question your own buying habits.

Can we really get rid of plastic?

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A conscious citizen separates (segregate) single-use plastic from organic waste like vegetable leftover and food waste at home. “Right now, I have a sack full of plastic wrappers that I have accumulated over the last six months. I don’t know what to do with it? I use a cloth bag in vegetable market and my cereals and pulses are packed in cloth bags too. But still I am sitting on a heap of disposable plastic that I gathered buying chocolates, biscuits and a variety of packaged food. How do I get rid of them?” asks Yoginath Chavan, a Nagpur resident.

While it is fashionable to say ‘Stop using plastic’, it is imperative to know that “WE CANNOT”. Firstly, we do not have the gumption to say ‘No’ to finished products like noodles, biscuits and toasts that cater to our family’s taste buds. Secondly, the market forces have firmly impressed on our minds that anything wrapped in plastic is hygienic and safe for consumption. Moreover, we cannot expect Amazon/Flipkart to wrap our shippings in a paper bag, can we?

So, we may say no to plastic bags, but the tough part is that we still cannot stop it from getting into the eco-system via our homes.

Okay, give me a quick-fix

As much as we despise seeing plastic scattered in dumping yards, there is no one-step solution to one of the biggest challenges facing mankind today. But, collectively we may reach close to an answer.

The biggest advantage of plastic is that it is durable. And, its biggest disadvantage is that it’s durable. For records, plastic can remain in soil for about 1,000 years. In water, it gets disintegrated into micro plastic, which enters human food chain through aquatic animals like fish. Pic: Pixabay

First things first, stop looking at plastic as the only problem staring at us. We (humans) created it and did it for a reason. Plastic is helpful because it is durable and plastic is a problem also because it is durable (it does not decompose for a 1,000 years).

In fact, research shows that plastic is not as big a threat to oceans as climate change or over-fishing! So, are we overplaying the plastic threat? Partially, Yes. No doubt plastic harms our water sources, animals and has entered human food chain. However, Over Consumption – driven by strong market forces, zealous government policies obsessed with GDP growth – have largely gone unnoticed. LED bulbs is a case in point. People once thought these diode-based lights will drastically cut down electricity use. It didn’t. We are generating more electricity today, thanks to latest gadgets that we use day in and day out. Replacing plastic tea cups with paper ones is not going to reduce your carbon footprint either (Remember, paper comes from cutting trees!)

Consumer is the king and slave as well

Consumer ignorance is like the icing on the top. For example, should we insist on buying California apple when its local equivalent from Himachal is equally nutritious? If you think further, a custard apple grown about 15 kms away from your house and sold by a villager in a small basket at the vegetable market is more eco-friendly than apples bought all the way from Kashmir/Himachal in fuel-guzzling trucks. Here, the plastic problem is automatically taken care of, because short distances of transport do not require elaborate packing.

Tussle with Technology  

As long as we think technology can solve every problem facing humanity today, we are steadily headed for a doom. For example, recycling plastic is a highly energy-consuming activity and may cause pollution as well. Wind energy has its limitations (transmission and distribution losses are way too high) and not much research has gone into understanding the long-term challenges in disposal of solar panels once they become obsolete.

10-year-old Anindya makes a plastic eco brick at home. It is simple. Take an old drinking water bottle and start putting in plastic wrappers, which you would otherwise throw away. When full, the bottle goes to recyclers. Voila! The boy just prevented some 80 single-use plastic wrappers from ending in the landfill.

Use less, enjoy more!

An economist may not like it, but reducing our consumption seems like the only solution to the myriad problems we are facing today. It has been suggested that if everyone on the planet consumed as much as the average US citizen, four Earths would be needed to sustain them. However, only 0.7 Earths would be required if everyone lives like an average Indian. So we are still better off than our western counterparts, though the markets, and also the government, do not like thrift. They want us to spend more so that the economy grows and keeps growing. How much can the economy grow? Sadly no one knows.

We have only one Earth and habitating Mars is a distant dream. So let’s teach our kids to use natural resources carefully, buy stuff judiciously, don’t fall for market allurements and find peace in making simple choices. We first need to find peace within before we look to establish it outwards.

(This is the sixth in a series of seven articles to appear in this space in the run up to Earth Day, which falls on April 22)

PART 1: Climate education for young minds is the need of the hour

PART 2: Forest fires: Local communities best suited to protect, increase green cover

PART 3: How can you help fight climate change? Don’t waste food, try upcyling

PART 4: To stop species annihilation, protect forests, adopt regenerative agriculture

PART 5: Think BIG, Act small: Every individual effort can contribute to sustainability on Earth

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