Pakistan, come August 14th, is about to launch a campaign called “Plastic Se Azadi” (freedom from plastic). Now, this refers to a countrywide ban on single-use polyethylene bags that we find littering our streets, waterways and facilities by the tonnes. Now that harmful plastic is on its way out, let’s first understand its importance and find out how to reuse plastic once to help the environment.
A life that lasts 100 – 600 years
Your expensive imported mobile phone, that bottle of fizzy drink you enjoy so much the CDs/DVDs/Blu-Rays that dominate our entertainment, and your favourite party dress have one thing in common – Plastic. Today, it is hard to name a daily use item that is not composed of plastic. According to a news report, about 30 million tons of solid waste is produced annually in Pakistan, out of which 9% are plastics. Is that just a number or should it be considered an alarming figure in terms of waste production? The answer is yes. Simply because plastic if left untreated turns into land and water pollution, consequently threatening the life on land and under water. A study suggests that approximately 8 million metric tons of plastics end up in oceans each year.
Here it is important to understand what plastic really is and how it is harmful for our natural environment including human life. Primarily plastic is a product made from natural compounds such as oil, natural gas, minerals, coal and plants. Initially cellulose, a complex carbohydrate found in plants was combined with some chemicals to produce a durable material called plastic. Today, complex hydrocarbons are used instead. Hydrocarbons are mainly present in fossil fuels. In rather simple terms, plastics are a complex structure of many molecules joined together in a chain like format called polymers, that consist of elements such as carbon, hydrogen, sulfur, nitrogen, chlorine, fluorine, phosphorous and oxygen.
If plastic is a byproduct of natural resources then why are they harmful for the natural environment?
According to UNEP, the chlorinated plastics can leach into water releasing chlorine in large amounts which is toxic for the soil and water bodies. The harmful effects of plastics are seen when they are broken down; their physical and chemical properties change which poses a grave threat to the living organisms. An infamous chemical called Bisphenol A (BPA) when released in our natural environment at the time of plastic decomposition, can have hormonal effects on the organisms ingesting plastic.
A major threat posed by plastic ingestion is on the fish and other marine species including turtles. Nano-particles are ingested by these species which is a gateway for plastics to enter the food chain. Another reason for plastic being a threat to the environment is its non-biodegradable nature. It takes between 100 -600 years for any plastic to decompose. You cannot even survive for that long to see a plastic polyethene bag decompose. Furthermore, when plastics are burnt in open air, they release harmful gases, hence augmenting the greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere. Moreover, the worst of all effects of plastic pollution is the clogged sewerage pipes and canals which not only contaminate the sewerage system but also makes the canals and other water bodies aesthetically less appealing.
Are there any good plastics?
All plastics are bad. Given that we cannot totally eradicate them, we must choose the best out of the worst. There are several types of plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PETE), high density polyethylene (HDPE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), low density polyethylene (LDPE), polypropylene (PP) and polystyrene (PS). The most harmful of them all are the one-time use plastics such as plastic bags, mineral water bottles, food containers and plastic food wraps. The problem with these as the name suggests is that they are used only once and then end up in our garbage finally reaching the landfill sites and the water bodies. The best way to avoid them is to use alternatives for instance, instead of buying your coffee in a disposable cup each time to go to a cafe, get your sturdy coffee tumbler and get it refilled.
In many international coffee chains including Starbucks, you are encouraged to carry your own tumblers. Even though they are also made of plastic, they can be used several times before getting into the recycling chain. An alternative to plastic bags is a biodegradable and reusable cloth bag. It is easily available in the market and as a matter of fact can be stitched at home as well. In most of the European and developed countries, you have to pay for a plastic bag at the grocery store. So why not get into a habit of carrying your own shopping bags even if there is no ban in the Pakistani supermarkets. It is rather sturdy and shows that you are eco-conscious. Avoid buying PET bottles each time you step out of the house and carry your own water bottles. It will save you money as well as will lower your carbon footprint.
The 3Rs – REDUCE. REUSE. RECYCLE
This may sound old but is the best way forward. The use of 3Rs when thinking about plastics is the savviest approach to getting rid of them. Here’s my list of what you can do to be plastic savvy.
- Avoid buying plastic bottles, jars, containers wherever possible
- Use glass jars to store your food items
- Avoid buying self-care and cleaning products like shampoos, hand wash, cloth softeners etc. in plastic bottles each time; instead buy refillers available in the market to reuse your bottles
- Segregate your plastic waste and reuse plastic items at home. You can make your very own home nursery using plastic bottles and containers
- Take up DIY projects with your kids at home using plastic bottles and other materials
Recycle and Upcycle your plastic waste to make money
Ever wondered you can make money from plastic waste? Yes, you can by upcycling your plastic waste. Recycling means that any plastic product for instance a PET water bottle goes through the process of sorting, washing, grinding and then melting to form a new bottle which can be again used in the market. However, upcycling means using the same bottle to craft another item which can either be used at home or be sold in the market. With many small businesses sprouting in the market, plastic waste can also offer small business owners especially rural women and local artisans an opportunity to make a living out of it. Just as they say every dark cloud has a silver lining, plastic too should be seen as an opportunity.
Upcycling ranges from using plastic bottles for making stationery and kitchen ware items to advanced products using plastic bags and turning them into handbags, home decor and sustainable fashion. As one grows in the field and hones the skills, new ideas can be incorporated. Besides apparel and fashion accessories, plastic waste can be turned into construction material as well. Here are some businesses across the world that are making money from plastic waste and are introducing eco-friendly products in the market:
- Up-Fuse: Up-Fuse is a local lifestyle brand in Egypt that collects and buys plastic waste to produce new items such as handbags, backpacks and other fashion accessories and supports the local artisans.
- By Fusion, New Zealand: Based in New Zealand, By Fusion blocker is an industrial machine that can convert 100% plastic waste in to advanced new building material. This basic yet innovative idea is a revolution in the construction industry. The business aims at eradicating plastic pollution by turning it into concrete building material.
- PTT Global Chemical Public Limited (PTTGC), a leading petrochemical company in Thailand is equipping people to use plastic waste to create new products which are sustainable, eco-friendly and helps them earn. PTTGC held STYLE APRIL 2018 fair in Thailand where artisans presented recycled plastic waste in to hand bags, disposable and biodegradable cups, placemats, coasters and even furniture items.
Sustainable living is not the name of a technology, but it is a ‘practice’. It’s not a matter of affordability of that mineral water bottle but is a matter of an eco-conscious behaviour. It’s a set of values which each one of us must adopt and implement in our lives. Plastics are as bad as fossil fuels as they are pervasive and resist degradation. They pose a grave threat to not only plants and animals but are also perilous to the human survival. If projects like Ocean Cleanup aren’t successfully greenlit, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than marine life.
That’s alarming! What can be done today to save the planet and our future generations is to focus on lowering our carbon footprint by adopting a zero-waste strategy. As hard as it may sound, it is only a matter of changing attitude and developing eco-friendly habits. The more we consume, the more we waste. The more we waste, the more it burdens the planet. Hence, conscious consumption is pertinent to life on earth.
The only best way to tackle plastic waste or even eradicate it and learn to live with it in a sustainable manner is by recycling and upcycling. If used properly, they are currently a huge market of opportunity. If you are enterprising, then plastic waste is where you need to get your enterprise started. Pakistan produces 9% of plastic waste annually which is your opportunity to make money. So, what are you waiting for? Get a few like-minded people together, brainstorm your ideas of using plastic waste, have some artisans on board and get set to reduce plastic pollution, produce eco-friendly products and make money. Voila!
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