Plagued by Plastic

As our group admired Acosol’s odour-free wastewater treatment in Benalmadena, Spain, a delegate from India exclaimed, “But there are so many plastic bags clogging the screens. I didn’t imagine Europe having this problem too!” The plant manager ruefully revealed that plastic bags were indeed a regular nuisance.

Plastic bags seem to have become as ubiquitous as corrupt politicians. They swirl in oceans and get eaten by marine animals (the bags not the politicians, alas). They fly along pavements, hang from trees or fences and of course, they accompany us back from supermarkets.

Some 4 to 5 trillion plastic bags-including large trash bags, thick shopping bags, and thin grocery bags-were produced globally in 2002, according to the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2004 report. Every year, billions of plastic bags are thrown away to clog drains, landfills or simply ruin the landscape.

During the flooding of Mumbai in July 2005, which brought the city to a standstill, plastic bags played an ignominious role.

Considering that oil is needed to manufacture plastic bags, there is also the element of greenhouse gas emissions involved.

But perhaps the worst impact of plastic bags is on the animals that ingest them. Quoting from a Worldwatch report: “Every year, tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals, and turtles die from contact with ocean-borne plastic bags. The animals may mistake the bags for food, such as jellyfish, or simply become entangled. Plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to break down, so even when an animal dies and decays after ingesting a bag, the plastic re-enters the environment, posing a continuing threat to wildlife.”

In countries such as India where garbage is found on roads, there is the additional problem of wandering cattle ingesting plastic and suffering from tragic consequences.

A number of governments have imposed partial or complete bans on this scourge, such as Australia, South Africa, parts of India, China, Italy, Bangladesh and Taiwan.

An obvious solution to this problem is to use biodegradable or reusable bags. In stores in Germany and Sweden, customers carry their own shopping bags. In India, people often carry jute bags to vegetable markets. Some stores use cloth bags made out of the dress materials left over during tailoring.

However, awareness about this is still not high enough in most parts of the world. Singapore started the practice of giving a discount to customers who carry their own bags, yet many prefer to not get any discount!

Unless there is a drive to educate people about the ill-effects of using polythene bags, we will continue to see unsightly debris on earth. Perhaps, a good idea would be to let batches of people work for a week at sewage treatment plants and garbage segregation units.

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