Dr Kedar Karki
The word plastic comes from the Greek word plastikos meaning capable of being moulded. It is the chief characteristic of plastic. It can easily be made into almost any shape by moulding or extrusion. Organic molecules of high molecular weight, or polumers are the basis of all-plastic. From World War II, when plastic development was sped up to produce crockery and cutlery for the American armed forces, and nylon stockings to cater to the world of high fashion, plastic has permeated deep into our lives. And today, plastic is everywhere. It is now hard to think of a part of our lives, which has not been penetrated by plastic products. Backlite, pleciglas, plastic printing plates, protective coating for machinery and aircraft, household goods, office equipment, sports goods and even defence equipment â€” all have some form of plastic material or parts in them.
In India itself, the per capita consumption of plastic is approximately 0.64 kgs, as against the world average of 13.7 kgs. Thus, it has begun to play a major role in our solid waster problem. It is believed that nearly 75 per cent of the plastic or the polythene material available in the market is manufactured through recycled material. And no one cares to know about the quality of such products or the raw material used after a purchase is made. Neither does one feel the need to know that a water bottle, a water bucket, a plastic container, a plastic water pipe or other such material, including the much familiar polythene bag, could have been manufactured from recycled material that may be unhygienic or contain toxic material. The consumer is just not aware of the fact that polythene, being a
non-biodegradable product, is almost impossible to destroy. On the contrary, such material is recycled many times, once the rag picker has made his picking. Even if plastic used can be recycled, its use in non-durables is not environment friendly. The process of recycling is carried out in small shanties with no pollution control devices or worker protection. The worst culprit is PVC, which accounts for 45 per cent of all plastic recycled there. This material is particularly dangerous, for upon reprocessing, it releases dioxins, which are considered one of the most toxic group of chemicals known. Apart from this, plastic contain lead, cadmium, barium, etc that gives it its particular characteristics.
Even after disposal, the menace of plastic material does not end. Sewer lines are choked and can explode owing to excessive methane levels. If burnt irresponsibly, they release highly toxic gases like phosgene, carbon monoxide, beside deadly toxins. When dumped into landfill sites, they slowly reach heavy metals like lead and cadmium with rain water, which seeps into and contaminates groundwater. Cows and dogs have been known to have choked on them while feeding at garbage bins and recently, a deer which gouged a carry bag died at the Delhi zoo. Some studies have shown plastic to react badly to heat. It also suggests that it could be carcinogenic. Yet we think nothing of packing hot food in plastic containers for office, school or drink hot coffee from plastic cups. Prevention may be the best cure. Hence, minimising or altogether avoiding the use of such materials may be the best approach:
a) Use cloth bags instead of plastic. Carry your own cloth bags when you go shopping.
b) Buy bottled products instead of those in plastic containers.
c) Use ceramic (pottery porcelain) tableware, rather than plastic varieties.
d) Use ink pens rather than ball-point pens.
e) Use carpet made of natural fibres rather than vinyl flooring.