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 all our future generations. ( yes, including your grandkids!)
Cleaning nearby a waterfront is not nearly the same thing as cleaning your colony or your neighbour’s house. Waste gets accumulated faster than it takes for you to watch a movie.
Now that I’ve agreed with that friend of a friend of mine, that is settled. Now, let me expound the indirect benefits of community activities that protect the environment.
Also, let me babble about why certain places are more damaged by the same amount of pollution as compared to others; and how different kinds of pollution have different degrees of effects on different environments. Environmentalists among you probably know this phenomenon. I like calling it- “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, it will not only not decompose and cause the usual harm as on land, additionally, it contaminates the water body making it a toxic soup and kills aquatic life that try to gobble it down.
Yes, that cute dolphin you saw last time is probably doing this as we speak. (I can hear some of you saying that cows also eat plastic and die of it. So how is plastic in water more dangerous? Firstly, thanks for making my main point that plastic is bad when eaten and many animals tend to chew on it.
Secondly, the cow must go searching for the plastic, but the plastic swims its way to the cute dolphin. Besides, what about the toxic soup coming out of the horrible chemicals used for polymerization of plastic?)
The same amount and kind of trash; but it becomes more deadly in certain environments. See how Ecological Sensitivity varies between land and water? Near certain spaces like farmlands, lakes, rivers, ocean fronts and underground water channels the sensitivity is very high.
I decided to not bore you to death about basics here. But we all know plastic is bad and some kinds don’t decompose for ten to 1000 years, right? Let’s not get into these time scales now.
Please, indulge me and answer a couple of quick questions about Environmental Science. Save some time and feel free to skip my answers to the questions if you already know the answer and the explanation of it.
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. What a waste, right?
Some of you might be thinking: “So what Pavni? I don’t care. I’m not going to be here, after 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. And no, I did not just make that up.
Research reveals so. Read on…
Question 2: Why is burning plastic bad for the environment?
Well, was that an insult to your intellect? We all know it is bad because it causes air pollution and releases toxic gases, right?
Boring Facts: Plastic, when heated or exposed to hot temperatures, may release dioxins, furans, Poly Chlorinated Biphenyls and mercury.
(I meant Brainy Facts, obviously!)
These contaminants reach an organism (like you and your pup) by settling on water sources, enter crops by accumulating on land, into our bodies through food, water, skin more than through air pollution.
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.
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 during pregnancy.
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.
Yes, stop them if you can.
Food in Plastic or Plastic in Food?
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.
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.
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.
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!
Essentially, you are giving toxic waste, ruining yourself and your guests. Sorry to be honest.
Now you are going to get very upset.
Not only did I take out any peace you got out of those plastic food wraps, I’m also saying that it could be a problem if you throw them out too!
What’s worse? I’m also saying that it is a problem if your neighbour or your neighbour’s neighbour’s maid or a random stranger on your road throws or burns it.
How to reduce plastic pollution?
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.
- Self-awareness: Everone, stop using plastic. Reuse, Reduce and Recycle should be your new mantra. And you must bug others until they understand the demerits of it.
- Institutional changes: Government can work on regulating plastic making, availability and disposal. They can ensure better ways of disposing of plastic ways and invest in research, manufacture and marketing of plastic alternatives.
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.
Plastic alternatives are already there. Before they come out of the laboratories, we can use organic-leaf made, glass, or steel alternatives temporarily. We can ask our government to make the institutional changes required to replace plastic industries with alternates and to invest in plastic recycling.
We live in a democracy. It is hard to make changes, but the system gave a chance to ensure that it’s not impossible. The government sets up new oncology centres and hospitals every year. Why not invest in taking preventive steps?
Urge them to Take up the plastic ban seriously, reduce the nicotine percentage in every cigarette, install nano- air cleaners, invest in drainage infrastructure and help farmers understand that all that excess fertilizers are poisoning ground waters!
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 ill effects of plastic, 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 the world.