Plastic – The Silent Killer

Use of plastic has boomed exponentially and become an invariable accompaniment to lives. Plastic - a polyethylene polymer, in its high density formwhile being so cheap and popular, is unfortunately non-biodegradable. Oceanographers noticed the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, also described as the Pacific trash vortex, which is a gyre of marine debris and this brought the global menace of plastic pollution to limelight and public domain.

Plastic has affected the soil, ground water and entered our food chain today. At a macroscopic level, it clogs drains, pollutes soil by large landfills and affects water bodies including lakes, rivers and oceans.At a microscopic level, various toxic substances used as additives to plastic manufacturing includingcolourants, plasticizers, stabilisers, flame-retardants, blowing agents and biocides have hazardous health implications.Toxic chemicals leach out of plastic and exposure to them is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments in animal models.

Heating food in the plastic containers and the water bottle gettingheated due to exposure to heat, causes release of harmful dioxins and trace metals, whichcan then enter our body. Cadmium in small amounts can affect gastrointestinal tract and the heart. Zinc in small amounts over a long time can affect neuronal tissues.Microplastics are plastic pieces smaller than 5 mm and astoundingly have been found in all forms of marine life from plankton to whales to sea birds.

This can absorb and concentrate organic pollutants (PCBs and DDT) from the surrounding seawater. High concentrations of microplasticshas been found in the stomach and intestines and smaller amounts have been detected in blood, lymph and the liver in animal studies.A small pilot study found several types of plastic in human stool samples, with an average of 20 micro-particles per 10g of stool, presented at a gastroenterology congress in Vienna, recently.

What will the long term ill effects of plastic on human beings be, is still not completely understood. But it wouldn’t be farfetched to extrapolate the impact on marine life onto us human beings. It is therefore imperative that there is reduction in the amount of plastic produced and consumed, redesigning of plastic products to make them recyclable and reusable, and having mechanisms in place for plastic waste handling.

A summary ban will take a heavy toll on the thriving plastic industry and the largely dependent low socioeconomic strata making it poorly sustainable for developing and fragile economies. India is moving towards eliminating plastic by 2022, which is commendable.It will indeed be a huge challenge for enforcement agencies. Government policies must be aligned to reforming and reorganizing this huge plastic industry and enviromentalists need to focus on ways of educating, creating awareness and come up with innovative solutions and alternatives.