The Looming Plastic Pollution Crisis


The oceans could drown in plastic, taking us with them

Recent studies in the Arctic revealed that each litre of sea ice contains around 12,000 particles of microplastic, which scientists believe are being ingested by native animals and marine life. Findings also revealed that the level of microplastics found in Arctic ice is alarmingly higher than ever before and poses a grave threat to aquatic life as global warming raises the temperature and makes Arctic ice melt, releasing this hazardous plastic pollution to the warm sea waters eventually where it enters very fragile aquatic and global food chains and ecosystems.

One must wonder, how did this plastic reach the Arctic where not many people live to use plastics? This plastic has been flowing into the Arctic mostly from the Atlantic and the Pacific, the major sites of plastic pollution. Another study also revealed earlier that in 2017-18 around 80,000 tons of plastic found floating in the largest plastic pool in the Pacific, and it represents the most persistent form of pollution Earth ever encountered and reached the remotest parts of the globe. This calls for the attention of industry, communities and policy drivers to help ascertain the extent of the plastic pollution problem worldwide.

The urban world is facing an immense environmental crisis of waste management; with plastic waste on top because of its multifaceted implications for the environment, water, life, oceans etc. The production of plastics (meaning pliable and easily shaped) started at the beginning of the 20th century with the discovery of polymers. These polymers were initially produced from natural sources like cellulose but now their main sources are fossil fuels rich in carbon compounds. During World War II, the plastics industry boomed and over time plastics became used in every sphere of life. Now every second item around us is made of plastic, from personal use items like razors, cell phones to automobile parts, PET food containers, consumer electronics so on and so forth. Among other uses of plastic, PET bottles and shopping bags are the most extensively used items and a major source of single-use plastic pollution.

According to the United Nations Environment Program,

  • Every year the world uses 500 billion plastic bags,
  • Yearly, at least eight million tons of plastic end up in the oceans, the equivalent of a full garbage truck every minute.
  • In the last decade, we produced more plastic than in the whole last century.
  • 50 percent of the plastic we use is single-use or disposable.
  • We buy 1 million plastic bottles every minute.
  • Plastic makes up 10% of all of the waste we generate.
  • Only 14% of total plastic used the world over is brought back for recycling, rest is disposed of into oceans and soil.
  • In the time it takes pacer Muhammad Amir to bowl an over, four trucks of plastic waste are dumped in the ocean.

This large-scale production and use of non-biodegradable plastics, has led to ever-enlarging environmental management challenges encompassing storage, use, and safe disposal. The unmanaged disposal of plastics into the soil and aquatic habitats have distressed scientists, public health professionals and marine biologists. For example, an additive known as Bisphenol (BPA) is used to make plastic more supple, durable and transparent. At high or very low temperatures, this chemical leaches into the food, water, and other eatables in PET bottles and other containers usually stored in freezers and sometimes exposed to high temperatures in microwave ovens. There is a potential danger of these chemicals entering the cellular structure of our bodies and causing cancers and threatening the endocrine system.

According to another recently published report on the menace of ever-growing plastic pollution and its dumping in oceans, eight million tons get there. In the next 30 years, plastic waste in oceans will outweigh fish and other marine creatures at the current rate of dumping. The economic value of these materials, mostly single-use, is estimated to be $80-120 billion. They cause annual damage of $13 billion to marine ecosystems by affecting tourism, fishing, and shipping.

In the next 30 years, plastic waste in oceans will outweigh fish and other marine creatures at the current rate of dumping

In Pakistan, each year, 30 million tons of solid waste is produced, out of which nine percent are plastics. Here, 55 billion plastic bags a year are produced. These single-use non-biodegradable bags mostly find their way to open garbage dumps, landfill sites or municipal sewers, thus making sewage disposal systems less efficient by choking, thus adding to the costs of utility operations. Current urban waste management practices are partners to this crisis, since they only focus on picking waste from communal bins and disposing of it in urban fringes without segregation, material recovery or recycling, and also by not making communities act responsibly. They are spending as much as Rs. 3000-6000 per ton without any business model to recover costs.

On another serious aside, a colossal amount of these bags is often being directly burnt, adding most hazardous exhaust gases like Dioxins and Furans to the ambient air. Despite burying in landfills and incineration, about half of the plastic waste generated finds its way to the ocean, eventually posing a serious threat to marine life.

The inundating plastic pollution has two unique but very closely connected effects; its global and far-reaching impact with its cyclic impact on regional and local ecosystems. Then are local eco-systems which are immediate recipients of all ill effects. To tackle this looming issue, we need to think globally and act locally. Considering a two-pronged strategy, we need to follow a holistic way forward to deal with this until science finds a sustainable way to replace conventional plastics. These solutions may include; dovetailing global scientific research in plastic modifications to local solution regimes to benefit the local industry to improve production standards and processes to produce sustainable and biodegradable plastics. Urban councils should reach out to communities sensitize them on the issue. Encourage the use of reusable and washable long life metallic and glass utensils at the household level as much as possible. Help assist urban waste management institutions establish material segregation and recovery facilities to enhance plastic recycling to reduce disposable volumes. Enforce already existing regulations to curb the use of plastic bags and open burning. A recent example worth-following is KP’s ban on single-use shopping bags. Consumer industry must be made to practice a take-back policy, especially for PET bottles and containers. Local urban councils must ensure that plastic waste is not be directly disposed to a landfill site. Municipalities must impose fines on throwing plastic bags into their sewers. The informal sector must be made to use recyclables, most importantly plastics, through enhanced financial incentives.

This looming crisis can only be tackled through collaborative efforts by industry, government, researchers and the end-users. Users must be made to understand the gravity of this looming issue and urged to buy, use and dispose of plastics responsibly. The role of local councils is really important in enforcing and devising plastic use and disposal related regulations (related to manufacturing, after-use recovery, and disposal), and by augmenting a holistic waste management solution encompassing segregation/recovery facilities to substitute current abysmal waste management practices.