Plastic Pollution

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    In News

    • Every year, June 5 is celebrated as World Environment Day. 
      • The day called for global solutions to combat the pandemic of plastic pollution.

    World Environment Day

    • The World Environment Day, led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has been held annually on June 5, since 1973.
    • The date was chosen by the UN General Assembly during the historic 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment – considered to be the first world conference to make the environment a major issue.
    • Over the years, it has grown to become the largest global platform for environmental outreach, with millions of people from across the world engaging to protect the planet.
    • 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the World Environment Day.
    • #BeatPlasticPollution: Hosted by Côte d’Ivoire and supported by the Netherlands, this year’s World Environment Day campaign is aimed towards discussing and implementing solutions to the problem of plastic pollution.

    Data Related to Plastic

    • According to UN data, more than 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced every year worldwide, half of which is designed to be used only once. 
    • Of that, less than 10 per cent is recycled. Consequently, an estimated 19-23 million tonnes end up in lakes, rivers and seas annually.
    • Around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. 
    • In total, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes – used just once and then thrown away.

    What is Plastic?

    • The word plastic is derived from the Greek word plastikos, meaning “capable of being shaped or moulded.”
    • Plastic refers to a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that use polymers as a main ingredient with their defining quality being their plasticity – the ability of a solid material to undergo permanent deformation in response to applied forces. 
      • This makes them extremely adaptable, capable of being shaped as per requirement.
    • Most modern plastics are derived from fossil fuel-based chemicals like natural gas or petroleum. 
    • However, recently, variants made from renewable materials, such as corn or cotton derivatives have also emerged.
    • Around 70 per cent of global plastic production is concentrated in six major polymer types – referred collectively as commodity plastics. 
      • These include: Polyethylene terephthalate or PET, High-density polyethylene or HDPE, Polyvinyl chloride or PVC, Low-density polyethylene or LDPE, Polypropylene or PP, and Polystyrene or PS. 
      • Each of these have different properties and can be identified by their resin identification code (RIC) denoted by symbols found on plastic products.

    Concerns 

    • Plastic pollution – It includes plastic waste that is mismanaged (e.g. open-burned and dumped in uncontrolled dumpsites) and leakage and accumulation of plastic objects and particles that can adversely affect humans and the living and non-living environment
    • Slow decomposition rate: Plastics are hard to eradicate due to their slow decomposition rate in natural ecosystems.
      • Decomposition rate refers to the rate at which a material breaks down into its constituent parts through chemical processes – plastics are remarkably durable in this sense. 
    • Microplastics: Plastics break down into their smaller units called microplastics – officially defined as plastics less than five millimetres in diameter. 
      • These microplastics find their way across the planet, from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to the heights of the Himalayas.
      • According to the most recent global estimates, an average human consumes at least 50,000 microplastic particles annually due to contamination of the food chain, potable water, and air.
    • Effect on Human Health: Notably, microplastics contain a number of toxic chemicals which pose severe risks to human health. The biggest health risk associated is with the chemical BPA or Bisphenol A , which is used to harden the plastic. 
      • BPA contaminates food and drinks, causing alterations in liver function, insulin resistance, foetal development in pregnant women, the reproductive system and brain function.
    • Marine pollution: The largest collection of plastics and microplastics in the ocean is in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Also known as the trash vortex, it is located between California and Japan, and formed due to converging ocean currents.
      • As per estimates, the GPGP covers a surface area of 1.6 million sq km– roughly half the size of India! There are other, smaller such garbage patches in other oceans.
      • It floats on the sea surface and ends up clogging the marine animals.
    • Plastisphere: Plastics are becoming part of the Earth’s fossil record and a marker of the Anthropocene, our current geological era. They have even given their name to a new marine microbial habitat called the “plastisphere”.
      • Anthropocene is defined as a period of time during which human activities have impacted the environment enough to constitute a distinct geological change.
    • Climate change: Plastic, which is a petroleum product, also contributes to global warming. If plastic waste is incinerated, it releases  toxic fumes and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thereby increasing carbon emissions.
    • Tourism and Economy: Plastic waste damages the aesthetic value of tourist destinations, leading to decreased tourism-related incomes and major economic costs related to the cleaning and maintenance of the sites.

    Global Efforts To Tackle it

    • The 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping Wastes and Other Matter (or the London Convention)
    • The 1996 Protocol to the London Convention (the London Protocol)
    • The 1978 Protocol to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).
    • The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) considers plastic marine debris and its ability to transport harmful substances as one of the main emerging issues affecting the environment.
    • GloLitter Partnerships (GLP): It is a project launched by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and initial funding from the Government of Norway.
    • Clean Seas Campaign:
      • The United Nations Environment Programme launched the Clean Seas Campaign in 2017
      • Aim:  The goal was to galvanize a global movement to turn the tide on plastic by reducing the use of unnecessary, avoidable and problematic plastics including single-use plastics and phasing out intentionally added microplastics. 
    • Greenpeace: It is an environmental NGO that is dedicated to conserving the oceans and marine life across the globe. Its grassroots efforts have resulted in the ban of destructive fishing practices, companies changing their fishing policies, and the creation of whale sanctuaries.
    • United Nations resolution: 124 countries which are party to the United Nations Environment Assembly including India signed a resolution to draw up an agreement which will in the future make it legally binding for the signatories to address the full life of plastics from production to disposal, to end plastic pollution.

    India’s Efforts In Tackling Plastic Waste

    • Ban on single-use plastics: India has banned the production, use, and sale of single-use plastics such as bags, cups, plates, cutlery, and straws in many states.
    • Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): The Indian government has implemented EPR, making plastic manufacturers responsible for managing and disposing of the waste generated by their products.
    • Plastic Waste Management Rules: India introduced the Plastic Waste Management Rules in 2016, which provide a framework for managing plastic waste through various measures, including recycling and waste-to-energy initiatives.
    • Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2022: 
      • The guidelines on EPR(Extended Producer Responsibility) coupled with the prohibition of identified single-use plastic items.
      • It banned the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of carry bags made of virgin or recycled plastic less than seventy-five micrometers.
    • Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: The Indian government launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a national cleanliness campaign, which includes the collection and disposal of plastic waste.
    • Plastic Parks: India has set up Plastic Parks, which are specialized industrial zones for recycling and processing plastic waste.
    • Beach clean-up drives: The Indian government and various non-governmental organizations have organized beach clean-up drives to collect and dispose of plastic waste from beaches.
    • Awareness campaigns: India has launched awareness campaigns to educate people about the harmful effects of plastic pollution and encourage them to use sustainable alternatives.
    • India is a signatory to MARPOL (International Convention on Prevention of Marine Pollution).
    • The “India Plastic Challenge – Hackathon 2021 
      • It is a unique competition calling upon start-ups /entrepreneurs and students of   Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to develop innovative solutions to mitigate plastic pollution and develop alternatives to single-use plastics.

    Way Ahead/Suggestions

    Individual efforts

    • Try a Zero-Waste Lifestyle: Become a zero-waste champion. Invest in sustainable, ocean-friendly products- reusable coffee mugs, water bottles and food wraps. Consider options like menstrual cups, bamboo toothbrushes and shampoo bars.
    • Travel Sustainably: On holiday one can try to watch single-use plastic intake. Refuse miniature bottles in hotel rooms, take your own reusable drinking bottle and use reef-safe sunscreen, without microplastics.
    • Dress Sustainably: The fashion industry produces 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions. That’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. One should consider sustainable clothing lines, vintage shops and repair your clothes when possible.
    • Choose plastic-free personal care products: Personal care products are a major source of microplastics, which get washed into the oceans straight from our bathrooms. Look for plastic-free face wash, day cream, makeup, deodorant, shampoo and other products.

    Government and community efforts

    • Designing a Product: Identifying plastic items that can be replaced with non-plastic, recyclable, or biodegradable materials is the first step. 
      • Find alternatives to single-use plastics and reusable design goods by working with product designers. Countries must embrace circular and sustainable economic practices throughout the plastics value chain to accomplish this.
    • Technologies and Innovation: Developing tools and technology to assist governments and organisations in measuring and monitoring plastic garbage in cities. 
    • Municipal and community actions: Beach and river clean-ups, public awareness campaigns explaining how people’s actions contribute to marine plastic pollution (or how they may solve it) and disposable plastic bag bans and levies.

    Multi-stakeholder collaboration: Government ministries at the national and local levels must collaborate in the development, implementation and oversight of policies, which includes participation from industrial firms, non-governmental organisations and volunteer organisations.