[Explainer] The life of plastic: born a hero, dying an outcast, resurrected a monster

  • An estimated 11 million metric tonnes of plastic are entering the world’s oceans every year, and without urgent action, this number is set to increase to 23-37 million tonnes by 2040.
  • The most common reason for plastic waste escaping the reuse/recycling route is ignorance. Perception surveys in Mumbai indicate that only 30% of participants are aware of the amount of plastic waste generated and only 44% are aware of the ban on single-use plastic in the city.
  • To decide how plastic waste must be handled, knowledge on what kinds of plastic wastes are being produced is essential.

Plastic is a boon to many industries as a versatile material that can be moulded into myriad products from simple packaging bags to life-saving medical devices. When a plastic product is made, it is usually a hero – the ideal, low-cost, easily scalable answer to many industrial needs.

However, most used plastic products die as outcasts – openly burnt, buried, or discarded into overflowing landfills and leaking into terrestrial and aquatic environments.

According to a recent UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report, plastics currently make up at least 85% of all marine litter. An estimated 11 million metric tonnes of plastic are entering the world’s oceans every year, and without urgent action, this number is set to increase to a quantity of 23-37 million by 2040 – equivalent to 50 kilograms of plastics per metre of coastline worldwide.

But the story of plastic does not end there. Plastic waste comes back with a vengeance as a toxic waste monster in soil, air, water, and on land, where it strangles and chokes life. In order to tackle the issue of plastic waste, we need to break the chain of events that lead to its leakage into the environment; and strengthen circularity in the material life cycle of plastic.

What is the material life cycle of plastic?

The material cycle of plastic consists of seven stages according to CounterMEASURE, a project by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Government of Japan, which aims to track, survey, and offer solutions for reducing plastic leakage into rivers in Asia. Stage 1 involves material engineering, where plastic manufacturers decide on what raw materials – petroleum-based or non-petroleum-based, recycled or virgin, or a mix of the two – will be used to create the primary product. In stage 2, the production and business models determine what end-products are made. These two stages collectively determine the reuse and recycling capacities of plastic products.

Stage 3 deals with the consumers’ use, reuse, and behaviour; for example, some consumers tend to reuse PET bottles many times before discarding them, whereas others do not.

Stages 4, 5, and 6 deal with the collection, recycling/repurposing, and conversion or disposal of plastics, respectively. These stages affect the leakage of plastics into the environment. If collection is efficient, reuse is low, and disposal systems are inefficient, plastics flow through drainage and sewer systems or directly into water bodies. To minimise this loss, stage 7 uses clean-up drives in areas where the leaked plastic accumulates in a final attempt to recover plastic waste from the environment.

However, a lot of plastic escapes this cycle and is ‘lost’ into the environment.

​​What is ‘lost’ plastic?

In India, according to the Central Pollution Control Board, nearly 3.5 million tons of plastic waste was generated in the year 2019-2020. Of this, about 60% was reported as recycled, while the other 40% was ‘lost’ as mixed waste to poorly managed landfills and water bodies. Many of India’s urban, rural, and even protected areas are heavily contaminated with this ‘lost’ plastic waste, as are its lakes, rivers, and seas.

Estimates from recent clean-up drives in Mumbai, Haridwar, Prayagraj, and Agra, indicate that 10-100 metric tonnes of plastic waste leaks into the surrounding ecosystems. Other reports from iFOREST (International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology) indicate that about 35% of all the plastic waste generated in Haridwar and Rishikesh ends up mainly in the Ganges river. Data from these clean-up drives show that most of the lost plastic waste consists of lightweight and single-use plastics – such as thin polythene covers, toffee wrappers, straws, bottle caps, disposable cutlery, and multilayer packaging used as sachets and food packets.

Plastic particles in garbage. Photo by Parvathisri/Wikimedia Commons.

Along the peninsular coast of India, in the major trawling grounds off Cochin, Ratnagiri, Mumbai, Veraval, and Visakhapatnam, plastic litter is a major problem, finds a 2020 report from ICAR-Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute. In these intensely fished areas, fishing boats routinely encounter 2-55 kg/km2 of plastic waste composed of polythene covers, packaging waste, and derelict fishing gear. On average, 0.3–3.8% of the total weight of a fish catch is marine plastic litter; since plastics weigh much lesser than fish, this fairly low weight percentage likely does not reflect the sheer volume of the plastics caught by trawl nets.

Another trawl-based study in 2021 from ICAR-Central Institute of Fisheries Education has found that marine debris, which is 90% plastic, makes up nearly 5.5% of every fishing haul along the Arabian coast.

A survey of six beaches in Kerala by researchers from the Cochin University of Science and Technology and the ICAR-Central Institute of Fisheries Technology in 2017-18, has found that about 70% of beach litter is plastic. Of this, nearly half was fishing-related plastic such as ropes, nets, buoys, and floats while the rest was foamed plastics, footwear, PET bottles, and food containers. In another study, published in 2020, from the Marine Research Institute at Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, eight beaches in the area were assessed for plastic beach litter; a whopping 70–80% of the plastic litter found was single-use plastic.

How does lost plastic get ‘lost’? 

The most common reason for plastic waste escaping the reuse/recycling route is ignorance. Perception surveys in Mumbai indicate that only 30% of participants are aware of the amount of plastic waste generated and only 44% are aware of the ban on single-use plastic in the city. In Haridwar and Rishikesh only one in four people are aware of sustainable waste practices, and most households do not practice waste segregation.

Besides this, previous work and some preliminary data from the CounterMEASURE project indicates that many fishermen along the Ganges either lose or dispose of worn out fishing gear and nets along embankments or into the river itself. Yet, they are not blind to the problems these practices cause and express interest in conservation drives to save the Gangetic dolphin – an animal that faces grave danger from choking and drowning due to entanglement in the discarded nets.

Religious practices are another reason for plastic entering the Ganges, finds an investigation by the National Productivity Council. In Haridwar, pilgrims often purchase plastic cans near the embankments to carry Gangajal or holy Ganges water. These plastic cans are considered to be as auspicious as the Gangajal itself and are disposed of by ‘immersion’ in the river.

In other areas such as the mountains, plastics cause a very different type of problem – by changing waste profiles and escaping into the landscape due to ineffective waste collection.

The ‘Himalayan Cleanup’, a joint initiative started in 2018 between Zero Waste Himalaya and the Integrated Mountain Initiative (IMI), has thrown some light on how this happens. “Waste managers in the mountain states are facing a huge challenge as the waste profile has changed so much over the last few years,” says Priyadarshinee Shrestha, Secretary, IMI and Team Leader at WWF-India’s Khangchendzonga Landscape. “Now there is so much non-biodegradable waste that is also non-recyclable. Traditional methods of waste management simply cannot handle these wastes at the volumes they are being produced in,” she adds.

Roshan Rai, a councillor at IMI and development practitioner with the Darjeeling-based NGO DLR Prerna explains that mountain geography and scattered human habitations pose immense problems for the logistics and costs of everyday waste collection and disposal. “Although tourism adds to the pressures of plastic waste in the mountains, it’s not the only contributor,” says Rai. “Our entire production system is geared to produce waste. Such a flawed production system has meant that the resident urban and even rural populations in the mountains are producing more plastic waste than we can handle.”

The pristine landscape of the Himalayas is sadly no more. In many cases, the plastic waste ‘lost’ in the mountains makes its way back to civilisation through the many streams and rivers that arise in this majestic land. Studies on the Himalayan regions of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Indus rivers reveal that minuscule plastic particles are present in river water and sediment.

How do we tackle the issue of plastic waste?

To decide how plastic waste must be handled, knowledge on what kinds of plastic wastes are being produced is essential. Thus, trash audits – inventories of waste – of what waste is generated where, by whom, and in what amounts are necessary. Since waste production can be highly variable across areas, economic/industrial sectors, and socio-cultural contexts, this information will be crucial for situation-specific waste management approaches.

In India, efforts are underway to curb the leakage of plastic waste into the environment. These include mass clean-up drives and plastic deposit schemes such as garbage cafés that offer meals in exchange for plastic, a school that accepts plastic waste as fees, and phone recharges offered by the Indian Railways in exchange for plastic bottles. Along with these initiatives, the Indian government is also encouraging the use of collected plastics in laying roads, as fuel for cement kilns, and diesel production through pyrolysis.

While these endeavours are laudable, they are yet to stand the tests of time, especially as questions on their economics, logistics, and sustainability arise.

Meanwhile, although several plastic bans have been put into place by various states in India, their usefulness is questionable. A peek into the history of plastic bans in India shows that although some good has come of them, most bans aren’t very successful due to an absence of market-based and municipal support system.

Is a plastic-free life possible?

“Although I don’t think an entirely plastic-free life is currently possible for a lot of people, we can do a lot to reduce plastic consumption,” says Soumya Prasad, the founder of Do no trash, a collective based in Dehradun committed to adopting sustainable living practices and promoting a plastic-free life. The collective’s 30-day plastic-free challenge offers simple solutions to reduce or even eliminate plastic in our daily lives. The Do no trash ecostore has a range of eco-friendly products such as bamboo toothbrushes and baskets to help people transition to low-plastic-use lifestyles. “We are hearing about other stores in Dehradun that are beginning to stock similar eco-friendly products, and frankly, that’s wonderful,” says Prasad. “I’m happy to see that there’s a market for non-plastic products, since their availability to consumers is the first step towards moving away from plastics,” she adds.

Banner at Victoria Memorial, Kolkata. Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D./Global Photo Archive/Flickr.

While other initiatives like cutlery banks and crockery banks also gain popularity as plastic-free alternatives for serving food and drinks at large gatherings and public functions, an important question arises – how far can consumers carry the burden of reducing plastic waste?

“Unless there are systemic solutions and better designs from the producers, the issue of plastic waste cannot be resolved,” says Shrestha, adding that the Himalayan Cleanup project was one of the first exercises that drew public attention to extended producer responsibility under the Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016.

Though slow on the uptake, industries are also beginning to realise this. Many companies are attempting to use less packaging and incorporating recycled plastics in their packaging. Others are mulling a shift to fully recyclable plastic pouches from the notoriously difficult-to-recycle multilayer plastics. Designs and fabrication methods for mixed-material products that can be readily recycled are being developed, as are products with modular designs; modularity ensures that different components of a product can be replaced independently to delay that product’s entry into the waste stream.

In addition, non-hazardous packaging substitutes and biodegradable plastics are also being explored as possible replacements for most common single-use plastics. Unfortunately, switching to these alternatives will also require well-run industrial-scale composting systems to handle the large quantities of greenhouse gases that will arise when such products enter the waste stream.

Despite these setbacks, both industries and consumers need to rethink traditional economic models of business with linear trajectories hard-wired to produce waste.

This will not only lay the foundations for a more circular economy, but can trap plastic within a material life cycle and prevent its resurrection as a toxic monster.

Read more: Plastic pollution: The migratory routes of plastic


Banner image: Plastic litter at Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo by Aparna K/Wikimedia Commons.

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