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  • Mridul Mittal

Are we Building a Plastic World?

Updated: May 22, 2019

Have you seen wonders of the world? Let me show some of them to you –

Built with 2.3 million stone blocks that weighed around 2 – 10 tons (each) the Pyramid was built on 13.1 acres of land in the Egypt desert. The marvel of this structure is such that even today people wonder how an ancient man lifted such heavy blocks of stone without the aid of modern machinery and nor can we fathom the purpose of such a magnificent structure.

Britain’s national icon Stonehenge was built almost 5000 years ago and it still stands tall symbolizing mystery, power, and endurance.

A 15th-century citadel of Incan empire, Machu Pichu was built using large dry stones that were not fitted together with a mortar!

Pyramid of Sun and Moon

Largest pyramids of Mexico, even today no one knows who built these wonderful structures and they have survived the wear and tear of time and nature with such resilience that belies wonder.

Why am I taking you on a history tour now?

My point is simple. The ancient man built huge megalithic structures using stones and they are a source of great wonder and repositories of history and culture that existed once. We look at them with great wonder and speculate various theories about how they were built. They are looked upon as heritage symbols and are protected with life and arms because they are precious remnants of an era that cannot be replicated, not even with modern machinery.

That said let us look at some of the wonders that we will be leaving this world with –

Someone once said right that, “Nothing on this earth lasts forever. Except maybe plastic.”

It was a funny quote but the idea behind is certainly not hilarious by any measure.

Are you appalled?

We should be. Ancient man built splendorous wonders that stood for eons. What will our contribution be to the world? Plastic?

How did we get here?

A century ago the first plastic was invented and since then it has held us in thrall. Plastic boxes, containers, bags, toys and what not… By the time we realized the fact that we are contaminating our environment with this baneful invention we had created enough of them to cover entire continents under it.

Dangers of Plastic

Plastic is an imperfect product and it negatively impacts not only our environment but also our health. A municipal nightmare, plastic is a man-made disaster that is destroying our fragile eco-system.

Today we see plastic everywhere… all around us. It does not biodegrade and it sits and accumulates in landfills and pollutes the environment for years to come. Plastic is used everywhere and in all industries and our dependence is such that it would be very difficult to imagine a life without it. Our dependence stems from the fact that it is a durable product with incredible longevity and little did we expect that these very factors will prove it to be the bane of the environment.

Take a walk down the road and tell me what you see… garbage dumps full of plastic covers. Where do you think they end up finally? They end up in our oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers polluting our waters. We eat food that is packed in plastic containers and in the end we imbibe it within our body.

Do you know our blood and urine contains measurable amounts of plastic?

Plastic pollution may not be evident as air or water pollution it is nonetheless a sad reality today. While microscopic plastic particles are polluting the air today, animals, bird, and fish are consuming big sized plastic bags that they find littered everywhere.

What is of great concern here is that the mass of plastic that contaminates world’s oceans exceeds that of Plankton (small microscopic organisms that are a source of food to sea animals). What is appalling is the fact that there are patches of garbage in the ocean that are as large as the state of Texas!

The magnitude of what we have done is a bitter pill to swallow. Today 300 million tons of plastic are being produced every day even while we scratch our heads and wonder what to do with the plastic of yesterday!

Countering the Plastic Mania

For years we have been gripped by this plastic mania. Steel has given way to plastic in all our households. Thankfully the awareness against these has set in among the people and we are learning to say ‘no’ (albeit slowly) to plastics. One of the first measures that had me excited in India was the extra charge on plastic covers. An average middle-class Indian would think twice before paying Rs.5 for a plastic cover.

Nowadays, I see people shopping around with cloth bags in the supermarket and that’s very gratifying to see. It is a small wee step towards a plastic-free environment.

I recently read about a zero-waste grocery store that was opened in Germany and would be very happy to see something like that in India.

When you step into this supermarket you will find food kept in bulk bins from which you can select the products. You will need to carry a bag of your own if you wish to shop here because nothing comes in a disposable bag, plastic cover or tetra packs here. You will not find endless shelves of overflowing products here, as everything is unpackaged.

In many ways, shopping like this takes me back to simpler times of my childhood when milk can be bought in bottles and one needed to carry a cloth or wicker bag to get the groceries.

When an abandoned Futon sparked a great idea?

In the University of New Hampshire (US) a student named Alex Fried was moving out of his dorm after his freshman year. That’s when something near the dumpster caught his eye. It was a futon that in a reasonably good condition. Like any other student short of cash he was excited because he could use it in his new apartment. To his surprise when he opened the Futon he found that it was full of usable items! When he looked around the campus he found many such futons stuffed with items that were thrown out by its owners as waste.

Alex soon realized that millions of students pass out of the University leaving behind tons of stuff that are deemed useless but in reality, only a very small fraction of it actually belongs to the dumpster and the rest like the futon can be reused.

This sparked a beginning of a campus organization called Trash2Treasure. The basic premise is very simple. The members of the organization collect usable items that would otherwise end up in the dumpster from the students who are moving out of the campus and sell it back to students who are moving into the campus.

How cool is that?

The money that they make from this program goes into organizing the sale for the next year… so and so forth.

If some of our own enterprising students can start a program in our Colleges and Universities how cool will it be?

I like the motto that they run their organization by – ‘When the only solution is a dumpster, everything looks like trash’

If we think beyond the dumpster umpteen possibilities open up for us.

Alex Fried didn’t stop with this innovative organization he thought beyond the scope of his own University, which is very commendable about this young man. Working with Trash2Treasure he salvaged more than 100 tons of material, recycled more than 2000 electronics and donated more than five tons of food and clothing to local shelters. That’s not all he saved his University more than $10,000 in disposal fees and raised money towards more sustainability programs.

Next, he started an organization called PLAN – Post Landfill Action Network a national expansion of Trash2Treasure that would help students in other Universities to develop similar recycling and reusing programs in the campuses.

This is a huge undertaking and it all began with a futon in a dumpster!

Mindboggling wouldn’t you agree? Ocean Cleaning

Trying to clean up oceans is quite challenging. It would be like trying to remove water from a tub using a thimble while the tap is open! Plastic debris poses a great threat to the sea animals as it gets entangled with their digestive tracts and thus introducing dangerous chemicals into the food chain.

Boyan Slat was a high-school Dutch student when he once went on a diving expedition. What he found under the ocean had a profound impact on him? He found more plastic than fish under the water, choking the fragile ecosystem of our oceans.

Soon this Dutch inventor came up with an inventive design that would help clean the garbage patches in the ocean using the natural currents to sweep the debris into a fixed collection vessel that would be anchored to the sea floor. Today the prototypes of Slat’s invention are being tested in the ocean to clean plastic from the water.

The way forward

Plastic pollution is a menace of our creation and unfortunately, it is our children who will suffer from it unless we consciously stop manufacturing it and say ‘no’ to it. While many cities and countries have adopted this adage we are still grappling with the original problem of how to dispose of it.

Thankfully science came up with an answer to it with Mealworms. Yes, there are worms that can eat plastic! These small bugs can apparently make a meal of Styrofoam and polystyrene plastic that were previously thought to be non-biodegradable and clear the landfill of these pollutants.

When scientists fed 100 mealworms were given 34 – 39 milligrams of Styrofoam they converted half of the plastic into carbon dioxide and then excreted the rest in the form of biodegradable droppings that were deemed safe enough to be used as soil manure for crops!

Though more studies need to be conducted to see how these worms were able to ingest the plastic I am now optimistic about our future and hope that we do not leave a plastic world for the future generation.