World Environment Day 2023
Menace of plastic pollution and its remedial measures

Dr Konthoujam Khelchandra *

World Environment Day (WED) is an annual event which is widely celebrated on 5th June as a global day for positive environmental action. The WED was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972 and has grown to become one of the main vehicles through which the United Nations stimulates worldwide awareness of the environment and encourages political attention and action.

WED is designed to give a human face to environmental issues, empower people to become active agents of sustainable and equitable development, promote an understanding that communities are central to changing attitudes towards environmental issues; and advocate partnership which will ensure all Nations and people enjoy a safer and more prosperous future.

WED is also a day for people from all walks of life to come under one common goal to ensure a cleaner, greener and brighter view for the present and future generation. The WED 2023 is hosted by Cote D’Ivoire and supported by the Netherlands and the theme is “Solutions to Plastic Pollution”. The year 2023 marks the 50th anniversary (1973-2023) of World Environ- ment Day observance.

Menace of plastic pollution: Plastics are usually manufactured by the process of polymerization; which chemically combines monomers into polymers. These polymers are the basic building materials of all plastics. Most of the monomers that make up the plastics are carcinogenic, mutagenic, as well as disruptive of the normal functioning of the endocrine system.

Some of the most commonly used categories of plastics includes low density polyethylene (plastic carry bags or polybags), high density polyethylene (household items such as buckets, bowls, plastic cups and plates), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (thermocol), polyethylene-terephthlate (carbonated soft drinks bottles, mineral water bottles), polycarbonate (baby feeding bottles, large water bottles), polypropylene (packaging eatables like chips, wafers, snacks) etc.

Out of all these plastics types, polyethylene is the most consumed variety. Moreover, a large proportion of plastics that we use are converted into waste in no time. Most of the plastics do not serve long-term needs thereby high percentage ends up in bins. This means that most of the plastics are thrown away very quickly after single use. This causes major disastrous effect on the environment and health hazards.

Some of the heavy metals like lead and cadmium are used as additives in making polyethylene plastics. These additives are very toxic and are known to leach out. Lead is usually neurotoxin that can cause depression of central nervous system, unconscious- ness, respiratory arrest, heart attack, seizures and even death.

Cadmium is a nephrotoxin which damage the cells and tissues of the kidneys causing nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys). A nephrotoxin can also aggravate other conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases. It is for this reason that coloured plastic bags are considered to be a health hazard.

Burning of polyethylene plastics releases many volatile compounds like formaldehyde and acetaldehyde both of which are suspected to be carcinogens. Formaldehyde causes respiratory distress. Additionally, burning of plastics releases dioxins, which are amongst the most toxic chemicals that have been known to lead to not only cancers, but also cause disruption of endocrine functions and reproductive disorders and it is also linked to birth of defective babies.

Moreover, studies have indicated that microplastics entering the human body through ingestion or inhalation can lead to inflammation, geno-toxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis. This will result in cancer, cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory bowel diseases, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic inflammation, auto-immune conditions, neurodegenerative diseases, and stroke.

According to United Nations Environment Programme, the world produces more than 300 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. It is alarming to know that only about 10 percent of all the plastic made so far have been recycled, as it is too costly to collect and sort.

The rest are dumped or buried in landfills or burned. So, there is great dangers of using plastic products without restraint. The time has come to take appropriate steps to tackle the menace of plastic pollution.

It is noteworthy that the Government of Manipur has taken concrete measures by adopting the Manipur Plastic Policy, 2022 to reduce the level of plastic pollution and regulate use of single-use plastic products.

As per the policy, the Manipur Government has ordered a ban on single-use plastics with effect from July 1, 2022. Penalty for violation of the Manipur Plastic Policy, includes stringent measures likes imprisonment of 5 years and fine of up to Rs 1 lakh. Implementation of the policy will substantially act as an important means towards reducing the impacts of plastic waste in Manipur.

However, we need to watch and see the successful execution of the Manipur Plastic Policy in true spirit in order to achieve the actual desired objectives for a better environment.

What can be done to reduce plastic pollution? There is no magic formula by which we can immediately cut the level of plastic pollution. However, we can adopt specific lifestyle changes and alternatives to help reduce our dependence on usage of plastic items, thereby trimming its demand.

Reduce, reuse, recycle and replace is the mantra when tackling plastic pollution. We should say no to single-use plastics; Use our own cloth bags for shopping; stop buying drinking water or any beverages in plastic bottles; Discourage the usage of plastic cups for soft drinks, coffee or tea. Insist on glass or ceramic mugs; Make your storage container plastic free.

Store all our food items in glass containers. Clean and reuse glass containers whenever you buy one. In order to combat plastic pollution on a larger scale, introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is of prime importance; wherein the producer must bear the responsibility for the EPR throughout its life-cycle.

In practice, there has to be a clearly identifiable manufacturer responsibility for every single mineral water bottle that is discarded. The company is responsible for ensuring that the bottles are picked up, collected, and recycled. There is need for phasing out the toxics like PVC and toxic additives used in plastics manufacturing. It is also important to encourage alternatives to plastic usage.

Prevention of plastic waste is possible by altering attitudes and behaviour of individuals and businesses. Awareness programmes and youth led initiatives helps, while bans and levies on single-use plastics will force firms to change packaging, preventing plastic from reaching the consumers.

Providing plastic-free drinking water through public tapes may prevent people from buying bottled water. Instead, people may carry reusable water bottles. It is also really important to provide plastic-free alternatives, edible packaging and reusable items, this will go a long way in minimizing the use of plastics in our daily life.

We should stress on change at local level. One of the changes we can bring is the demand for better material use. This can be done by buying greener and ecofriendly products. Moreover, we should make changes to showcase the possibility and viability of alternatives, such as in educational institutes, shopping areas, offices, and tourist spots.

We could use substitutes for plastics or reduce their use, buy products that are packaged in better environment friendly materials. We should avoid using or serving in disposables, like plastic plates, plastic glasses, and thermocol. There should be sound waste collection and waste management systems that will ensure reduction of plastic in garbage.

It is pertinent to have a systematic door to door solid waste collection from the different areas. The present system of waste collection by Imphal Municipal Corporation (IMC) and IMC nominated NGOs in the various areas of Imphal is not very effective. Segregation of waste at the source is very important. Till date to my knowledge there is no report of segregating the household waste at source in Imphal.

This is one of the major challenges where the concerned authority should take appropriate measures for segregation of waste at source. It is noteworthy to remember that the Solid Waste Management Rules (SWM), 2016 have mandated the source segregation of waste in order to channelise the waste to wealth by recovery, reuse and recycle.

We should encourage reusing plastic products and materials; this will help extend their lifestyles and reduce wastage. Innovative reuse models like glass and steel bottles, cloth or jute shopping bags, plastic-free packaging reduce plastic pollution and save costs. Recycling plastic is extremely important since only 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, increasing plastic collection rates will enhance recycling.

Disposal should be the last option for materials that cannot be reused or recycled. So, a good waste management system is mandatory to reduce economic impact and environmental damage. These are some of the remedial measures that will aid in reduction of plastic pollution.

Therefore, on this World Environment Day, 2023, let us all undertake immediate actions targeted towards minimizing the level of plastic pollution on priority basis and at the same time encourage and increase our support to policies that will ensure a plastic-free environment for the betterment of our future generations.

* Dr Konthoujam Khelchandra wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Associate Professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Science, Manipur University.
He can be contacted at kkhelchandrasingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on 06 June 2023.

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