24 Jun 2018


A garbage-strewn canal in Board Bazaar, Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt, White Star
A garbage-strewn canal in Board Bazaar, Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt, White Star

Since the last 60 years or so, we have become a throwaway society. At school, we learnt that water, air and soil are the essential items for life to go on. Today, it seems as though plastic is something we can’t do without, so forceful is its intrusion in our daily lives. Cheap, light and easily available — plastic has become the biggest menace on the planet.

Plastic has been around for about 50 years and by now has cluttered every nook and corner of the world. Up to the ’70s, the use of plastic was not so visible in Pakistan but, ’80s onwards, plastic tumbled in from all over.

Remember when a metal utensil had to be taken out to buy yoghurt or take-away nehari. Halwa puri came in brown paper bags or wrapped in newspaper just the way pakoras and parathas were bought. One left the house with a piece of cloth to purchase and bring home naans. Milk was bought in a pail or received at home from the doodhwalla in the pot it would be boiled in. Ceramic ware and pottery was preferred for storage purposes and people had a basket or a cloth bag to carry home groceries. Meat was also wrapped in newspapers. Grocery bags would be washed after a visit to the market and, voila, we were all set for the next trip.

Plastic has a short lifetime in use but lasts a very long time in the environment; the consequences of that accumulation are now becoming clear

In clinics and hospitals, syringes were made of glass that were sterilised in boiling water and used countless times for months or years. Even baby feeders (bottles) were made of glass and were washed and sterilised by mothers and used as long as the feeder remained useable. Mothers used washable diapers for their babies. Soda or Dettol would be added to the boiling water used to wash soiled diapers. This was a standard lifestyle which generated not much garbage.

Conceding to convenience, we have now become addicted to using plastic without realising its destructive consequences. People don’t bother to carry a bag to the shops, shopping malls or grocery stores. On the other hand, being a very cheap product, shopkeepers prefer to keep plastic bags rather than the more expensive paper bags. It is common practice for a shopkeeper to happily pull out a plastic bag even for a small item. On the part of the shopkeepers, it is a matter of saving cost on paper bags thus ensuring profitability and, on part of the customers, it a matter of convenience.

It is the natural temptation towards convenience which is the major cause of plastic pollution leading to an addiction to disposables. From cups to diapers to syringes to furniture, plastic is ubiquitous. Most plastic litter comes from single-use or disposable items, which have been inadequately disposed of and not recycled.

And then man began to realise that the ever-convenient plastic bags have made their way into the rivers, water channels and finally into the seas and oceans. Even the soul of the strongest person would shudder to see hospital waste being dumped in rivers in the mountainous region, much of which contains plastic. Most cruelly, the natural resource coming down in the purest form from glaciers has been polluted.

On a breezy day, plastic bags can be seen flying in the air. On negotiating a rainwater puddle, one may be shocked to see a diaper floating along with other filth or plastic packaging. One person’s convenience becomes another person’s inconvenience.

As per global estimates, approximately 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year, out of which only 10 percent is recycled while around seven million tonnes makes its way into the seas. Microbeads in cosmetics and toiletries such as toothpaste, have been found to affect the growth of fish larvae and persist in the guts of creatures — from mussels to fish — that swallow them.

Drone photography shows plastic garbage taking the form of huge rafts spanning over kilometres floating on the surface of the seas and tons and tons of plastic covering ocean floors. This has had devastating effects on marine life. Prior to the advent of plastic, fishing nets were made out of yarn and jute and ship-mooring ropes were also made of jute which is bio-degradable and but now these materials are expensive, so the first choice convenient for fishermen or the ship owners is plastic material.

Sea creatures and birds die wrapped in plastic sheets or plastic nets. Occasionally, bellies of dead fish and birds are opened to find the cause of their death being plastic items which they swallow thinking it to be food. The plastic completely blocks their digestive system after which they endure slow death because of hunger and starvation as they cannot eat anything anymore. In a way, humans have started a silent war against the marine species with a weapon of mass destruction in the form of plastic.

As the human population is multiplying fast, the planet will not be able to sustain our food needs thus ultimately we will be relying on our seas and oceans. It is unfortunate that due to our irresponsible attitude, we are polluting the future food source of our coming generations. The very custodians of the earth are on a rampage to destroy the seas, the oceans, land and the air without thinking of the consequences. In search of convenience and high profits, we have forgotten that to live on this earth humans also need fresh food and a healthy environment.

Plastic pollution has taken the form of a global plague and cannot be tackled by governments or their agencies alone. Every citizen on this earth needs to voluntarily act to reduce his or her individual consumption of plastic items in daily life or else the plastic monster will consume every living thing. Scientists call for improved plastics design that would encourage recycling and prevent single-use containers from entering the oceans and breaking into small pieces in order to protect marine life and for us to continue consuming plastic but not be consumed by the convenience itself.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 24th, 2018