Plastics have become the inseparable part of our lifestyle even though we know the grave threat it poses to our environment. They are everywhere, from our wears- shoes, bags, headgears and even women hairs attachments; our automobiles; office and household electronics/computers; storage facilities/containers and sachets/wraps of various products and foods. The world now produces more than tons of plastic every year, which could end up as pollutants, entering our natural environment and oceans (1). About 91 % of the plastics that we consume are not degradable (2). Nigeria generates an estimated 32 million tons of solid waste per year, one of the highest amounts in Africa. Of that figure, plastic constitutes 2.5 million tons (3).
Tackling increasing plastic waste
Plastics take thousands of years to decompose in nature under normal conditions and cause floods by clogging drains, respiratory issues when burned, shortening animal lifespans when consumed, and contaminating water bodies along with damaging aquatic lives. The normal degradation also poses a yet graver threat of microplastics which are even tougher to degrade and are produced from the degradation of plastics by the Sun’s UV rays. Though a lot of countries have mechanisms to collect plastic waste, not much has been done to process these waste. Most of the developed countries tend to export their waste to the poorer and developing nations thereby harming their ecosystem as well. In 2017, Europe exported one-sixth of its plastic waste, largely to Asia. They don’t realize that this is not a long term solution and ultimately the brunt of the damage will be borne by the entire humanity and none will be spared. Although, there are many ways to curb plastic waste—by producing less, consuming less, and better managing the waste that already exists to prevent contamination or leakage (4).
The 5-R’s as proposed by various environmentalists for better management of plastic pollution are as mentioned below:
REDUCE the consumption of plastics from all walks of our lives. This notion sounds utopian as present but we need to learn from our past and try to sync with our lifestyle to try to minimize and ultimately reduce our dependency on plastics. One such mechanism is through the policy-based support on the initiative by all governments. Policies can be made to nudge the reduction in consumption of plastics by taxing plastic-based products and providing incentives for alternate products. It is the first and most important step of confronting plastic waste problem. When you initially reduce the amount of plastic you consume in the first place, the harms of that plastic, including greenhouse gas emissions, are lessened. Furthermore, the remaining “R’s” become easier because there is less plastic to address down the line.
Some of the ways to reduce the plastic wastes are:
- Buy in bulk to reduce packaging
- Take a reusable shopping bag with you so you don't have to use a paper or plastic bag from the shop
- Say ‘no’ to a plastic shopping bag when you only have a couple of items
- Choose products that use less packaging
- Buy reusable items rather than disposable ones
Is the second of the “five R’s” of waste of management. “Refuse” goes hand in hand with “Reduce” because you can easily cut your plastic consumption by refusing to accept certain types of plastic products. The next time you are offered that plastic straw or plastic shopping bag for an item you can just as easily carry away without the bag, please just politely refuse it! The positive impact might seem small, but it will add up over time, especially if we all do our share and refuse unnecessary plastic.
The idea again to reduce the consumption by promoting the reusability of nondegradable plastics. That way it doesn't go in the rubbish and end up in the landfill. It also means you don't have to buy a new product rather be creative. That saves you money and saves the energy and resources that would have been used to make the new product.
Some of the suggested ways in which we can reuse the plastics at our home are as follows:
- Give unwanted toys and books to hospitals or schools
- Use plastic containers for freezing or storing food items
- Use old jars for storage
- Shop at second-hand stores or use online trading websites to buy items that are unwanted by others.
is probably the step that everyone is familiar with since it seems to get the most attention. Recycling also serves to lessen the demand for virgin plastic resources, which produces more greenhouse gas emissions compared to recycled plastic resin. Remember that not all plastics are recyclable. Plastics cannot be recycled infinitely, at least not using traditional techniques. Chemical recycling, on the other hand, breaks the plastic down to the molecular level, making available “platform molecules” that can then be used to make other materials. It’s early days for this idea but, in principle, it could open up a whole range of opportunities. There are up to 50 known “plastivore” micro-organisms that can digest plastic because they contain enzymes that help break it down (5). Recently Cemex Ventures is investing in a start-up that turns waste unrecyclable plastic into artificial gravel (6). Beginning in January 2020, South Africa joined the Plastics Pact, making South Africa the first African nation to join the network. The Plastics Pact Network is a system of national and regional initiatives working toward “a circular economy for plastics” to dramatically reduce waste worldwide. The South African Plastics Pact outlines these goals for 2025:
Taking action on problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (re-use) delivery models
- 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable
- 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled
- 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging
It has been had reported that “plastic recycling created 7,892 formal jobs in recycling centres in 2018.” An additional 58,470 people reaped the benefits, “including informal waste pickers and small or family-owned businesses.” Informal waste pickers are people that find recyclables discarded in landfills and “sell them to buy-back facilities”. In August of 2019, Shisalanga Construction began development on a road being repaved using plastic milk bottles (7).
Is the last of the “five R’s” of waste management. “Remove” is what you do when all of the other “R’s” have been exhausted and you find plastic waste that has escaped collection systems and wound up in the natural environment. The removal of plastics means the complete avoidance of the plastic materials from our lifestyle. We can progress this in a systematic manner where we can first reduce our dependency on them and subsequently avoiding their usage altogether. We can also participate in a local clean-up initiative, or support a nonprofit organization that is working to solve the problem through environmental education, advocacy and empowerment. Search for alternatives like biodegradable plastics or bioplastics. Biodegradable plastics are known as the eco-friendly decomposable by the living organisms (bacteria & microorganisms). These plastics are basically formed with two methods either from renewable raw materials or petrochemicals inclusive of biodegradable additives resulting in an improved biodegradation process. Global biodegradable plastics market is expected to rise from its initial estimated value of USD 3.15 billion in 2018 to an estimated value of USD 9.30 billion by 2026, registering a CAGR (Compound annual growth rate) of 14.5% in the forecast period of 2019-2026. This rise in market value can be attributed to the rising amount of plastic wastes and concern for the environment and global warming (8).
Though plastic is very useful in today’s world the need of the hour is to tackle with it smartly. Ending it means avoiding it in the first place and changing our lifestyles a bit in order to develop a better world for the generations to come.