Whenever it comes to having a discourse on the climate change conundrum, plastic usage and the pollution emanating from it becomes a hot topic for experts and masses throughout the world.
Image Graphics by Team Geostrata
Plastic manifests in a variety of forms such as food containers, toothbrushes, television remotes and thin packaging films to name a few which have varying degrees of impact on our natural surroundings and society. It has emerged as the ultimate solution for storing or wrapping things for prolonging the lifetime of perishable as well as non-perishable goods.
The packaging industry doesn’t often come under the radar of climate activists as much as the plastic bag industry and other products which are directly carved out of the same, which is detrimental to our planet’s health. The fact that plastic packaging material accounts for 60% of the total marine plastic waste testify to the malignant character of this industry.
Plastic packaging is being utilised by multiple sectors such as the food and beverage industry, pharmaceutical, toys, footwear etc. which have specific packaging needs. These are plastic intensive industries but the food and soft drinks sector which comprises raw food such as meat and vegetables and cold drinks in the form of tetra packs have a major chunk in overall impact i.e. 23% and 12% on the environment. Within the gamut of packaging, the ‘multilayer packaging’ is the most prevalent and at the same time harmful type for containing the products.
THE MENACE OF PLASTIC PACKAGING
Multilayer plastic packaging is very intricately designed and manufactured where each layer, thinner than a hair, holds significant importance in the final product. It is made up of polymers such as PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) which makes it sturdy and protects the food from being exposed to oxygen.
In a nutshell, the shield that protects the foodstuff you buy from the supermarket is made up of more than 5 thin sheets or coatings of chemicals. This has been treated as the best option by the packaging industry. But the sad reality is that due to their thin and fine structure, packaging such as laminated wraps is the most rigid product to recycle. It’s almost impossible to break this complex design back into separate sheets for reuse or reprocessing. Unlike aluminium cans, these packs are shredded and converted into plastic pellets which then manifest as microplastic.
These are tiny plastic materials less than five millimetres in size which have formed a microplastic universe in the ocean, threatening aquatic life. It’s also being said that there are more plastic materials in the ocean than the fish themselves which is as devastating as the use of non-biodegradable plastics.
TERRIFYING NUMBERS TO LOOK UPON
We must know and understand these wounding effects of the plastic ecosystem in economic terms which eventually gives us a sense of the magnitude of the damage which is being inflicted on society as a whole. The concept of Natural Capital Cost has been used in UNEP’s (United Nations Environment Programme) report to evaluate the physical impacts of plastic usage by converting it into monetary terms. It delineates the cost that corporations may have to incur owing to the negative effects aforementioned.
Natural capital cost can also be regarded as the implicit cost or invisible cost. To look at a broader perspective, the total environmental cost of consuming all types of plastic products amounts to $75 billion (annual) which is flabbergasting given the increase in the wastage of resources. Waste management of plastic materials is also an expensive process where the collection process ranges from $20 to $250 per tonne (region-specific).
As mentioned above, plastic packaging residues constitute more than half of the total pie of plastic in the oceans which have direct pecuniary impacts on the economy through various mediums. Fisheries, tourism and shipping suffer humongous monetary damage. The plastic litter gets collected in the propellers of the ships leading to vessel damage.
Local NGOs and other personal initiatives taken on by climate activists have to bear the cost of cleaning the beaches which also leads to the closure of the same for a day or two, causing a loss of a hefty amount for the markets established near them. According to the estimates of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the total cost to the three sectors mentioned above is a mammoth $1.3 billion (Cumulative). All of the numbers highlight the economic burden caused by the unsafe disposal and treatment of plastic consumer goods all over the globe.
PRIORITISATION OF PLASTIC POLLUTION BY COP27
The 27th session of the Conference of the Parties will be held in Egypt in November 2022. COP 27 is expected to fill in the cavities left by its predecessor COP 26 where the latter stressed taking cognizance of the integrity of all ecosystems, including forests, and the ocean. Ensuring zero-carbon emissions by 2050 and maintaining the temperature of the earth from rising above 1.5ºC were the highlights of the 2021 Glasgow conference.
Although the marine environment has been considered, the case of plastic packaging or plastic pollution as a whole has not been mulled upon by the nations. It is generally being neglected in the wake of bigger issues which remain in the limelight. But can we leave this issue to get resolved on its own which would indubitably make the situation worse and leave the environment like a garbage dump for our posterity?
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken significant steps in reducing marine litter there. It has been working with the Caribbean and Latin countries to help them form national action plans for managing the solid waste plaguing the oceans. EPA has also developed an International Marine Litter Toolbox which will guide other countries to solve their waste management problem.
Semiconductors also have a role to play in catalysing the procedure of degrading and breaking down the plastic materials present in the ocean. To boost the process of ‘photocatalytic oxidation’ i.e disintegration of plastic particles through the synergy of sun and water, semiconductors are being used as they can soak up a minimal amount of light which galvanises the mentioned process.
This solution to the problem of plastic taking too much time to dissipate should be considered by nations and leading countries such as Sweden should engage in a technology exchange with their counterparts for the same purpose.
Climate consciousness should be holistic. Nations in COP27 need to make a case for the consumption of plastic products, mainly packaging so that the problem can be addressed and tackled as soon as possible. Alternatives to plastic wrappings which are made up of non-biodegradable polymers are present in the market. Nations should contemplate the lines of how to capitalise on the same.
Biodegradable polymers are non-toxic and hydrophilic which can serve as a better option for the packaging industries. They are easy to recycle and also aid in reducing carbon emissions during the manufacturing process which gels with the ultimate goal of COP26 which is reducing the carbon footprint.
As we strive for healthy and sustainable resource utilisation, the onus is on the governments and big corporations to leave no stone unturned. Both have to work in synergy to achieve the desired targets and move to the future with a comprehensive plan.
BY ABHINAV GOEL