Plastic Pollution: The Search for a Sustainable Solution

plastic-wastesGiven the present momentum of events, anthropocene may not last for long as it is engineering the apocalypse with the wonder material – Plastics. Anthropocene signifies the geological period when humans have been the dominant influence on the planet’s environment. According statistics, the world produced 322 million metric tons of plastics in 2015; and it is likely to be four times more by 2050. Plastics have become ubiquitous in our lives today.

This wonder material which was invented in 1907 is thickly intertwined with every aspect of our lives today – from toothbrush to the sophisticated gadgets and equipment which define our lives. However, it is so cheap to produce that its use has become rampant in single-use products, also called disposables. However, this is the starting point of the menace. It contaminates every component of our eco-system – land, water and air.

Environmental and Health Hazards

On land, plastic poses the risk of clogging the city sewer system leading to flooding, while stagnant water in big cities conveniently create the ideal breeding grounds for diseases. The harmful chemicals that leech into the soil from the plastics dumped in landfills, can contaminate the soil and ground water entering our food chain. This has been found to lead to hypospadias which is the abnormality of the genitals.

In the research conducted by the University of Minnesota and the State University of New York, out of 159 tap water sample from 14 countries that were analyzed for plastic contamination, 83% were found to contain plastic particles. The study revealed that people may be ingesting between 3,000 to 4.000 microparticles of plastic from tap water every year. Though the health risks are still unknown, what is established is that these particles have a potential to absorb and release potentially harmful chemicals and bacteria.

Almost 19 million tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans each year. Considering the plastic debris found in the ocean today, it is anticipated that the plastics in the ocean will outnumber the fish by year 2050. The immediate dangers to the marine life are from entangling in the nets or rings and by the consumption of the micro-plastics (small pieces into which the other meso-plastics shred) mistaken for food.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. When plastics enter the marine environment, they are broadly categorized into three, viz., namely microplastics macro-plastics and meso-plastics.

Microplastics and Macroplastics

Microplastics are those that usually have a diameter of 1-5 mm. Microplastics are further divided into primary and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastic are those that are used “in the form of plastic–based granulates or pellets”, while secondary microplastics are those that “occur through the chemical and physical degradation process of macro-plastics”.

Macro-plastics, on the other hand, are those which have a diameter of over 20mm, while meso-plastics have a dimeter of about 5-20mm. Of all these forms, microplastics is the biggest threat to marine life as these plastics are so tiny that they can easily enter the food chain in the sea, which is ultimately ingested by humans. These microplastics tend to further break down into nano-plastics.

Air is the third component of our eco-system that is affected by Plastics. If the by-products from the manufacturing of plastics contaminate air, so do the phthalates. Phthalates are the toxic chemicals added to plastics to make them softer and more pliable. These toxic materials are not chemically bound to the products and easily evaporate into the air. This off-gassing results in the typical “plastic” smell.

Engineering the Change

Environmentalists and the researchers have suggested various measures to combat the problems arising due to plastics. The philosophy that has gained a lot of prominence lately is the 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. It makes a lot of business sense to recycle the existing plastic waste to feed as raw materials for our insatiable need for plastics.

There have been lot of measures by the governments of developed countries in Europe and America to measure the plastics generated and about the percentage that has been successfully recycled. The European Commission supporting and propagating the “circular economy platform” is a step in this direction. The corporate world also rode the bandwagon of reuse with Apple and Nokia announcing to buy-back their old models emphasizing on reuse.

However, such regulations are yet to gain steam in the developing and underdeveloped world and in the organizations in the world.  Just as prevention is better than cure, the most important in this chain is to “reduce” plastic generation in the first place.

Locus of action

Considering the locus of action to implement the 3R framework, we can identify three levels to work with – individual, organizational level and macro level (national and international). Starting from the individual and his choices leading to the use and disposal of plastics, to the organizational level involving policies and regulations to minimize or use of recycled plastics and choice of environment friendly substitutes.

At the national and international level, global campaigns and initiatives including measures to establish a plastic pollution treaty between nations are being proposed by the think tanks. The overarching goal being the recycling, reuse and reduction of plastics.

The 5 Gyres Institute, which uses research to motivate change, emphasizes that organizations take responsibility for the entire life-cycle of the products they create. United Nations has instituted prevention and significant reduction of marine pollution as a Sustainable Development goal, which is certainly heartening. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in its global campaign is urging individuals to eliminate excessive wasteful use of single-use plastics.

On the other hand, through its Clean Seas campaign, UN urges countries and businesses to eliminate use of micro-plastics from their products and significantly reduce other disposable plastic items by 2022. Ten countries including Indonesia, Uruguay, Costa Rica have aligned themselves to this initiative with a pledge to make provisions to significantly slash marine litter by taking up measures such as taxing single-use plastic bags, better waste management and education etc. Meanwhile, dynamic political conditions and the political agenda of the governments make other alternative level initiatives imperative.

The most important step is to reduce plastic generation in the first place.

Technological solutions and discoveries of bacteria and micro-organisms which would dissolve and digest plastics, don’t seem to be a possibility soon. Measures such as shifting to biodegradable plastics, charging for the plastic bags, training the packing staff in supermarkets to use the optimal number of bags etc. are some of the measures that are being undertaken at the organizational level and the supermarkets to reduce the problem. Similarly, supply chains should also be modified, designed and managed to minimize the use of non-degradable inputs.

Towards a sustainable solution

A more sustainable and long-lasting solution to tackle plastic pollution could be to look at the individuals – grass roots, the source of the demand to find a sustainable solution. Unconventional campaigns such as the one created by Dan de Almeida and Michael Hughes have been very creative. Their proposal to recognize the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as a sovereign nation, named as the Trash Isles, have been quite unorthodox with the aim of creating awareness about the problem. They have approached the UN with the proposal for official statehood for the “Trash Isles” with mock-ups of a passport, flags, currency and stamps for this would-be nation. With the children in their formative years, who are important stakeholders in this phenomenon, schools and educational institutions are doing their fair share by creating awareness and seeding the thoughts.

Sustainable results usually call for more than just creating awareness. We need to conceptualize and design systems and put the required infrastructure in place to enable execution and realization of benefits. If we need to reduce use of plastics, we need to design and propose plastics free solutions to people’s needs at a reasonable cost. Only then can we expect any permanent change.

Can use of Behavioral Modification (BM) in behavior and choices, sound as a probable solution? Behavior modification that works on the ABC (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence) model involves finding out the antecedents i.e. the current environment that influences peoples’ choices and what can be altered to make it favorable for behavior change. This should then be followed with giving them reasons to change to favorable behaviors and then constantly measure the effect to implement informed interventions and thereby create the much-desired result, a better world.

The gains must be made permanent using the Change Management techniques. This approach may not be easy or involve less effort, however these need to be considered as vital components of the multi-pronged approach essential to tackle this mammoth that is our creation.

About Anitha Nair and Jaya Sangeetha

Anitha Nair is working as Senior Lecturer in Modern College of Business and Science. As a Faculty Member, she has more than 10 years of experience in the field of teaching, both in India and Oman. An active environmentalist, Anitha is also the Supervisor of the Environment Club at MCBS, which aims at instilling a sense of responsibility for the environment among the student fraternity. Jaya Sangeetha is a faculty of Marketing and Management who has been associated with Modern College of Business and Science (MCBS) since 2006. Dr. Jaya has a Ph.D. in Marketing Management and an M.Phil. in Management and an MBA in Marketing. She has 14 years of teaching experience in Muscat and in India and almost 7 years of extensive industrial experience in Oman and India in both the public and private sectors. Environment management research is her passion and one most close to her heart.
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