The world of plastics is nothing short of a wonder — a ‘smorgasbord’ of realistic miracles. Picture this — as scientists bend light through wafer-thin plastics, while using silicone, the outcome is nothing short of the phenomenal. To cull a few examples — the emergence of extremely tough, but lightweight plastics that has revolutionised science and technology, more so in the ever-expanding, sophisticated world of medicine and particularly in the rapidly advancing field of implants. For instance, artificial blood vessels made of plastics, and health valves, or the commonly used polymer material for cardiac pacemakers, among others. Plastics not only encapsulate, but also protect the enormously delicate electronic components that reside within such life-saving ‘gizmos.’
During the last few decades plastics have made healthcare simple and less painful — thanks primarily to new techniques and prostheses.
In other words, the use of plastics has reduced contamination, or infection, and relieved pain, while cutting down medical and surgical costs. In the process, it has prolonged and improved our quality of life and also saved innumerable lives.
While the use of plastic medical disposables has reduced infection significantly, modern prosthetic devices, made of plastics are progressively providing comfort, flexibility, mobility and life-like appearance. Just think of it — artificial hips and knees that use plastics to help provide smoothly working, trouble-free joints. Think also of medical packaging with tamper-proof seals — nearly 100 per cent of all pharmaceutical packaging uses the know-how. Or, to cull another exemplar, child-resistant caps that help keep prescription and other medications away from tiny hands.
From surgical gloves made of soft pliable plastic that preserves the sterile environment of hospital operating theatres and the smallest tubing to the open magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] machine, plastics dominate and permeate modern medicine, dentistry and surgery. Most of today's innovative medical procedures are dependent on the use of plastics — right from machinery to petri dish, plastics provide up-to-the-minute healthcare needs, large and small. Plastics also dominate home healthcare — of simple, portable and effective medical devices and gadgets, such as electronic blood pressure reading and glucose monitoring kits. In addition, plastics have ushered in a major revolution in everyday life — they have reduced the weight of eyeglass frames and lenses and augmented their strength and shatter resistance, while providing us with yet another handy option — contact lenses.
Hi-tech plastics have changed the face of agriculture, construction, office equipment and consumer products, apart from packaging, no less. This is the good news; but, the bad news is most products made from plastics are not biodegradable; they, therefore, pose potential health hazards. This includes direct toxicity, as in the cases of lead, cadmium, and mercury, carcinogens, as in the case of diethylhexyl phthalate [DEHP], endocrine or hormonal disruption, which can lead to cancer, birth defects, immune system suppression and developmental problems in children, among others. What’s more, the re-use of plastic waste has limited applications — especially in critical applications, such as medicine, food packaging and engineering, where their re-use is not tenable.
This is also, in more ways than one, the major downside in the West, where the average per capita consumption of plastics is about 60-90 kg. In the Indian context, the figure is approximately 10 kg. The reason is simple: plastics recycling is high, almost extraordinary in India. This also applies to reprocessed goods made from plastic waste — thanks to their economic feasibility and consumer acceptance.
The dumping of plastics is not really a ‘problem’ in India unlike the West. This again explains why health consciousness in the field of processed plastics is yet to gain ground in India in contrast to the scenario in the developed world, since the dumping practice poses a great threat to the environment. Interestingly, a majority of plastics and articles made from the material, in our country, are thrown away from homes and collected even before they are dumped in municipal garbage heaps and used with virgin material to manufacture low-cost items.
NOT ALL IS CLEAN
The inference is obvious — not all is clean in the plastics story, notwithstanding the fact that protagonists contend that the substances used are absolutely safe and energy-efficient. While the wonder material has now replaced wood, glass, steel and even aluminum in a variety of applications, prejudice is also rife — most ‘environmentally conscious’ people condemn the use of plastics for the amount of pollution caused by them during disposal. In reality, however, this is almost next to nothing — especially in comparison to the waste and pollution generated by a host of other industrial sectors.
Well, most environmentalists would not be impressed with the comparison. They would cite factors, such as limited recyclability and non-biodegradability of plastics, in general, albeit there is more than just simple ambiguity about what the term ‘environmentally-friendly’ actually means, or does not mean. Codes that are also supposed to make sorting of plastic containers for recycling easier, by way of guidelines, compiled by governmental and other agencies, are in place all right. They include the following — although not everyone again acquiesces to their context.
Recyclable. The word may be applied if the plastic item can be collected, separated or otherwise taken out of the solid-waste stream to make a new product/package. The claim has to specify part/s which can be recycled — if in case the whole item cannot be used
Recycled content. The term may only be used for materials recovered/diverted from the solid-waste stream
Degradeable, biodegradeable and photogradeable. Products which have all or any of the cited features should break down completely and decompose after disposal
Compostable. The product/package should break down into usable, non-toxic compost. If composting facilities at the municipal or other levels aren’t available, the problem should be indicated on the package. This is intended to benefit the consumer
Refillable. A company must sell refills in separate packaging, or set up a system to collect the original packaging, if it wants to call its products ‘refillable.’
To place the whole context in perspective is easy, also complex. Global plastic waste forms about 15 per cent of the total municipal solid waste and 7 million tons of non-durable goods, such as plates and cups. This is 30 per cent by volume, for plastic is lightweight, what with its ‘accountability’ for decreasing landfills. When you add the percentages, it also approximates 15-20 per cent of the plastics used in manufacturing as being discarded as scrap. Research suggests that just 10 per cent of the total plastic waste generated in 2012-2013, for instance, was recovered for recycling. To cut the long story short, plastic waste constitutes 25-30 lakh tonnes per annum [TPA] in this country — and, over 40-45 million TPA in the US.
Is there a solution to the growing quandary? There is — it corresponds to making wealth by creatively reusing plastic waste. You get the point — plastic recycling can convert such waste into products such as lumber, fence posts, furniture and building material, among other consumer durables.
A simple solution for a complex problem, right? Yes, indeed — if only each of us, the producer and the consumer, in the plastics saga is willing.