It won’t be wrong to say that we live in a plastic world. Wherever we go, we’ll encounter at least one thing made of plastic. As the pace of our lives quicken over time, we find plastic products more and more useful. Plastic shopping bags allow us to shop on the way, even if we hadn’t planned to, and disposable containers allow us to eat on the move.
“Up until the ’70s, we would have to take a metal or china container or utensil to buy yoghurt and nihari from the vendor because plastic bags did not exist,” reminisces Gohar Ishtiaq, a housewife discussing the good old pre-plastic days. “Groceries would be bought in a cloth bag or woven baskets made of date or coconut palm leaves. Flour was sold in a cloth bag while butchers sold meat wrapped in newspapers.”
With the increase in the use of plastic products globally, its repercussions are also increasing — as at least one third of all plastic products end up polluting the environment. And we produce plastic in substantial amounts. The production rate of plastic is growing exponentially at a rate of four percent per annum and, if things continue this way, there may come a time when the amount of plastic in our environment may exceed that of the flora and fauna.
An average person could be ingesting approximately five grammes of plastic every week
The story of plastic pollution is not a new one. Since plastic is a non-biodegradable material (that is, it can not be decomposed easily), it tends to remain in the environment and act as a pollutant. As tons of plastic gets dumped into the environment, the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems continue to be devastated. According to a World Wide Fund (WWF) report, around 450 million gallons of untreated industrial waste, including paper, plastic, glass and metal, from industries in cities enters the Arabian Sea every day. Not only does it pollute water and reduce its quality, as a result of associated chemicals, but it also proves to be a direct threat to aquatic life.
Plastic pollution is adversely affecting marine turtles, sea birds and other diverse marine life. Many of the creatures we love, such as whales, dolphins, birds and turtles, die because of plastic pollution. One such example is that of marine turtles, which feed on jellyfish; they may mistake plastic shopping bags as their natural prey and attempt to eat them. When that happens, the bags get stuck in their pharynx and suffocate them, resulting in a slow and painful death.
According to the WWF, by 2025 there will be one metric ton of plastic in the seas for every three tons of fish and, by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish. In terrestrial ecosystems, the soil quality is greatly compromised, while animals can get entangled in plastic bags and suffocate just as in water.
Another aspect of plastic pollution is our food; yes the stuff we eat may contain plastic. New research combining the results of more than 50 studies globally has found that, on average, we could be ingesting about five grammes of plastic every week — equivalent to the weight of a credit card — through the air we breathe, the food we eat and, especially, the water we drink. The report “No Plastic in Nature: Assessing Plastic Ingestion from Nature to People”, based on a study commissioned by the WWF, suggests that people are consuming about 2,000 tiny pieces of plastic every week. That’s approximately 21 grammes a month, just over 250 grammes a year.
The biggest source of ingestion of plastic is water, which comes as no surprise as most of the plastic ever manufactured finds its way to a water body. The degree of contamination fluctuates from area to area, depending on the degree of plastic pollution. For instance, in India, it was found that, on average, there were four microplastic fibres per 500 ml of water that was tested, and 82.4 per cent of the water samples tested were contaminated. The same can be predicted about Pakistan.
Consumption is mainly through seafood as plastic waste dumped in our oceans is consumed by marine animals, and, in turn, enters our food chain. Minor quantities of microplastics (small particles of plastic that pollute the environment) also enter the body through the air we breathe, as some plastic residue is also present in our surrounding air. It is more so indoors as compared to outdoors due to limited airflow. But this quantity is small as compared to other sources.
Although the exact health effects of plastic contamination are still under study, some suspected effects include respiratory disorders, toxicity of cells and early death in animals that ingest large amounts of plastic. Not only does plastic pose a threat by itself but it may also contain chemical substances absorbed by its surface, which may have harmful effects of their own, including the potential to cause cancer.
Moreover, as there are multiple types of plastics and there isn’t much awareness about their types in Pakistan, most people don’t know whether or not a particular type of plastic is microwave-friendly or not. They tend to heat edible items in plastic containers not suitable for the purpose, which causes some of the material to melt off and be added to the food. This can also lead to cancer.
Since 2000, the world has produced as much plastic as all the preceding years combined, a third of which is leaked into nature. The production of virgin plastic (plastic resin that has been newly produced using natural gas or crude oil in order to create brand new plastic products) has increased 200-fold since 1950 and has grown at a rate of four percent per year since 2000. It is predicted that current production could increase by 40 percent by 2030.
The plastic industry is one of the leading industries in Pakistan. Considering the economic situation of the country, it is extremely hard to restrain it. Biodegradable and recyclable or reusable plastic bags are hard to find as people are not inclined to use them because of a lack of public awareness.
Approximately as many as 55 billion plastic shopping bags are used each year in Pakistan. The current environmental laws of the country, on pollution and pollutants, are inadequate to deal with the issue. Unchecked, this problem will escalate even further and environmental deterioration will worsen.
“The Environment Protection Department (EPD) wants to ban plastic bags but in phases,” says Naseemur Rehman, the department’s director. “In the first phase, we plan to increase the thickness of the bag to 45 microns, though 45 micron is just a proposal and can be further enhanced. To decide this and other details, a committee is being constituted.”
He further explains that polythene bags are problematic for the environment. Light-weight plastic bags are responsible for causing more than 60 percent blockage of sewerage system. It also affects our soil, crops and nature. “The Oxo-biodegradable shopping bag is not recommended because of the presence of metals such as chromium used for its degradation,” adds Rehman, “The committee will further consider other options. It is expected that plastic bags will be banned in future and a phased strategy will be finalised soon and will be presented before the high court. Further, people are being encouraged to use cloth bags instead of using plastic or paper bags.”
Nazifa Butt, manager Environmental Assessment, WWF-Pakistan, believes that there is lack of awareness among the masses about the safe use of plastic which aggravates the problem. “According to international standards, the type of plastic must be mentioned on each product,” she says. “Usually there are seven types of plastics that not only tell the quality but also provide guidance regarding its recycling. Our work involves engaging the youth and general public, in nationwide advocacy campaigns on social media, beach clean-up drives and seminars on plastic pollution. Training fishermen for rescuing entangled marine species has been an ongoing intervention.”
The WWF Green Innovation Challenge is a start-up competition aimed at promoting innovative ideas that counter plastic pollution through recycling.
Regarding relevant laws, Butt says that in Pakistan only the guidelines of 2004 are available, which compel local companies to not produce plastic less than 15 microns. In addition to this, a ban has been imposed on the use of plastic bags by Gilgit-Baltistan Environmental Protection Agency in Gilgit-Baltistan and in Punjab in 2019. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has banned non-biodegradable polythene bags with a penalty ranging from 50,000 to five million rupees for the non-conformists. Similarly, the Sindh government has also banned non-biodegradable polythene bags and plastic products under non-biodegradable plastic products rules of 2014. “The National Environmental Policy 2005, does not mention plastics specifically,” Butt says. “It only dictates the reduction and mitigation of solid waste.”
In 2013, eight of the world’s leading consumer brand companies and WWF announced the formation of the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance (BFA). This alliance is supporting responsible development of plastics made from plant-based material, helping to build a more sustainable future for the bioplastic industry.
The situation can be improved if further research is conducted to understand the effects of plastic pollution so as to mitigate it. Also, more progress needs to be made in the area of environment-friendly plastic products. Strict environmental laws should be enforced to discourage plastic pollution in order to save the ecosystem. Also, there should be an effective communication between the government and plastic manufacturing industries to encourage recycling.
This can be made more effective by the government linking local waste management companies to plastic manufacturers. Plastic pollution is a serious threat that has now found its way to our diet and needs to be dealt with immediately. Otherwise, the consequences on our health might be severe.
The writer is a freelance environmental journalist based in Lahore. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 14th, 2019