Every Sunday, a bunch of us gather at the beach near our hometown and clean the shore. The best part is that we get to do it alongside enthusiastic children who show up week after week after week.
When we enter the beach, it looks like a long-lost cousin of trash yards. We set a decent target distance. We start with grit and great energy.
By the time we reach our target, we get unusually tired, thirsty and happy. And the beach looks untouched and remains so till the next half day or so.
This isn’t just to keep the little Kakinada beach pretty. When we clean, we make sure that the land closest to the shoreline is wiped off of plastic, thermocol and other wastes.
What is the point?
A friend of a friend of mine once bluntly declared: “The beach gets dirty sooner than the time you are taking to clean it. It is a waste of time!” I tried to explain but soon we moved onto the next fun topic.
So, I did what anyone in my place would do. I came home and started writing this. We have all been schooled enough times about how plastic, pollution and absence of waste management are harming us and to all our future generations.
Cleaning nearby a waterfront is not nearly the same thing as cleaning your colony or your neighbour’s house. While that is settled, let me now get to the indirect benefits of collective activities to protect the environment.
Let us understand why certain places are more damaged by the same amount of pollution as compared to others. And how different kinds of pollution have varying degrees of effects on different environments.
Environmentalists among you probably know this. Let us call this- “Variable Eco-sensitivity”.
In human terms, it means that if you throw plastic waste on land, it won’t decompose maybe for 100 to 1000 years based on its composition.
But, throw it into a water body and, it will not only contaminate it and cause the usual harm as on land, in addition to it- it kills aquatic life. Including that cute dolphin, you saw last time.
Ecological Sensitivity near certain spaces like farmlands, lakes, rivers, ocean fronts and underground water channels is very high.
I decided to not bore you to death about it here. We all know plastic is bad because some kinds don’t decompose for nearly ten to 1000 years, right? Let’s not get into it.
Let us test our knowledge about Environmental Science. Please, indulge me and answer a couple of quick questions.
Question 1: Thick plastic or thin plastic: which is more harmful?
If you ask your mom, she will say thick plastic is always better. Because she can re-use it. If you negate her and say thin plastic is better because it is thin, then the joke is on you.
I’m sorry mate. Just because it is thin, it does not decompose faster. In fact, thick plastic takes about 450 years to decompose and it is recyclable. But thin plastic is one-time use and decomposes for about 1000 years.
Yes, your mom is right. Some of you might be thinking: “So what Pavni? I don’t care. I’m not going to be here for 1000 years to witness how bad the earth is going to get.”
Then congratulations! Your take-it-easy-policy will keep you stress-free for a while. But plastic won’t let you. It is secretly causing changes to your brain functioning and soon, you could get depressed with this thought.
No, I’m not saying it- research is. Read on.
Question 2: Why is burning plastic bad for the environment?
Well, that was an insult to your intellect. We all know it is bad because it causes air pollution and releases toxic gases, right?
Fact: Plastic, when heated or exposed to hot temperatures, may release dioxins, furans, Poly Chlorinated Biphenyls and mercury. These contaminants reach an organism by settling on water sources, enter crops by accumulating on land, into our bodies through food, water, skin more than through air pollution.
These materials bioaccumulate. Which means they enter your body and stay in your fat cells. Babies get these accumulations from placenta if their mother is exposed to these.
Deformities in new-borns, cancer, reproductive health problems and mental illnesses occur due to this. The brain requires fats to function. If the fats are contaminated by plastic injected toxins, it might result in a range of brain malfunctions.
The contamination through the air is less compared to other sources. Next time your neighbours or municipality workers quickly burn waste they might actually give you depression or asthma or PCOS, or worse- cancer.
Food in Plastic
Don’t sue your municipalities and neighbours just yet. One of the most rampant ways in which plastic contamination is spreading is through your lunch boxes, those water packets and food parcels.
The heat emitted from the sun in a tropical country like India is enough to activate these toxins. The water and drink bottles in plastic and packets we drink out of are very harmful.
Every piece of your food is wrapped in it. You maintain high standards to eat clean but wrap your food in toxins. Our temples give hot Pongal as prasad in plastic bowls.
Note: When that hot biryani comes into contact with the plastic cover it is wrapped in, all these toxins get activated and seep into the Biryani. You eat it and can’t wait for the next time to consume toxic food again.
This is one of the main reasons why we should really work on not using plastic at all. But we are all busy celebrating marriages with a five hundred thousand foam cups and two million hundred plastic plates!
Sorry to be blunt. Essentially, you are giving toxic waste, ruining yourself and others.
Now you are going to get very upset with me. Because not only did I take out any peace you used to get out of the convenience that plastic food wraps gave you, but now I’m saying if you throw them out, it could also be a problem.
But wait. I’m also saying that it is a problem if your neighbour or the random stranger uses it or burns it. At this point, your wisdom points out that you can’t control how other’s act.
How to reduce plastic pollution?
I also know that you are tempted to say: “This is why I give up trying.”
Every week when we clean the beach, we end up with heaps of waste. But there are no ways to pick the trash and transport it away from the beach. And we are currently working on finding sustainable solutions to this.
Listen, there have always been and will always be at least two ways in which great changes could be achieved.
- Institutional changes
You become aware, don’t use plastic, tell your neighbour, ask your temple authorities, participate in beach cleaning, worry about ways to dispose the waste, bring this problem to the notice of local authorities, fail in all those attempts, try again, set up stalls and marches to demonstrate the effects of plastic and other wastes, give lectures to people on street, give presentations in auditoriums, write articles and poems about it, run the risk of looking crazy, write petitions, approach authorities, work towards a change, keep the faith, find better ways to save yourself, your family, your neighbour, the municipality workers, the street dog and maybe all of the earth.
We live in a democracy. It is hard to make changes, but the system gave a chance to ensure it is not impossible. The government sets up new oncology centres and hospitals. I also want to watch them take preventive steps and take the plastic ban seriously.
Plastic alternatives are already there. While we can use organic-leaf made or glass and steel alternatives for a while, we can urge the government to make the institutional changes required to replace plastic industries.
It is such a relief that Science already has solutions to all these problems. But today, these remain in the science laboratories. Let us strive to get them out of there- to the industries and into our houses.