Plastic bags pose a grave danger to the environment. The use of harmful chemicals in the production of plastic gives rise to environmental problems such as obstruction of drains, groundwater contamination etc. However, if plastic is recycled according to approved procedures and guidelines, then this hazard may not become a threat to environment and health. The problem with the use of plastic bags aggravates due to the shortcomings in the waste management system in the country.
At present, the production of plastic in the world is about 100 million tonnes per annum and it is growing at 4 per cent per annum. In India too, the production and use of plastic is growing rapidly. On an average, every Indian generates around half a kilo of plastic wastes every year. Much of it is scattered on and around the litter stack, which, in turn, spreads environmental pollution.
Composition of plastic and plastic bags
Used worldwide for packaging, plastic is a substance made from large molecules containing repeat units (called monomers). It is a substance that cannot dissolve in the soil easily and is unaffected by nature; if left in the soil, it can stop the recharging of geothermal water. In case of plastic bags, the repetitive units are ethylene. When ethylene molecules are ‘polymerized’ to make polyethylene, they form a longer chain of carbon molecules in which each carbon is composed of two atoms of hydrogen.
Plastic bags are composed of any of the three types of basic poly ethylene polymers – high density polyethylene (HDPE), low density polyethylene (LDPE) or linear low density polyethylene (LLDPE). Grocery bags are usually made of HDPE while dry cleaner bags are made of LDPE. The main difference between these substances depends on the extent of the main movement of the polymer chain. HDPE and LLDPE are made up of a linear indefinite series, while the LDPE series disintegrates.
There is a special unit of carbon and hydrogen in thick polyethylene. It is a chemical additive, which cannot be broken. This is why the thick polyethylene does not rot.
Why plastic bags are harmful for health
Plastic is basically not poisonous or harmless. But plastic bags are made of colours and dyes, metals and other inorganic chemicals. The chemical substances and colours, which are usually mixed with the intention of improving the properties of plastic products and making it soluble with soil, often leave bad effects on health. Some of the bright colours used in the production of plastic bags are associated with the possibility of causing cancer, while some are capable of making food substances toxic. Dangerous metals such as cadmium in pigment substances can spread widely and may prove to be a threat to health.
Plasticizers, non-volatile and low-molecular weight compounds, can dissolve in the food items like liquids, increasing the possibility of producing cancer. When toxic metals like cadmium and zinc are used in the manufacture of plastic bags, they make foods poisonous by scalding.
Recently, research has revealed that using plastic bottles and containers is fraught with dire consequences. Heating the food in the plastic utensils and the water bottle kept in the car can cause cancer. When a plastic bottle placed in the car is heated due to sunlight or more temperature, leakage of harmful chemical dioxins present in plastic begins. Dioxins enters our body through water. This increases the risk of breast cancer among women.
The use of cadmium in small amounts can cause vomiting and increase the size of the heart. The use of zinc for a long time causes damage to brain tissues.
Problems caused by plastic bags
If plastic bags are not disposed of properly, they make their way to the drainage system, which in turn leads to the blockage of the drains and makes the environment unhealthy. This also leads to aquatic illnesses. In re-cycled or coloured plastic bags, there are certain chemicals that dissolve and reach the ground and hence soil and water on the earth can become toxic. In industries where recycling units are not environmentally well-developed, toxic fumes produced during the process can create problems for the environment. Plastic bags containing leftover food, and which get mixed into other types of garbage, often become the food of animals with fatal consequences.
Today, one of the biggest harms is caused by liquor bottles made of plastic. Such bottles are gas and moisture inhibitor, which causes much harm to the fertile land. The use of plastic packing materials can lead to mortal illness in humans. The ecological balance of the Earth is also affected by this plastic pollution. The waste-filled polyethylene bags are causing problems in the drains of cities and towns.
Why the use of plastic should be discouraged
- Most of the plastic is made of substances, which are non-renewable sources in themselves.
- Plastics are highly flammable.
- Due to the consumption of plastic wrapped items, animals die of various diseases.
- The use of plastic is causing obstruction in the river-drain.
- Aquatic organisms have reached the verge of extinction.
The European Commission proposes to cut the number of plastic bags used in Europe every year. Italy has become the first country in Europe where plastic has been fully banned. It is a matter of concern when the use of plastic will be banned in India.
Hazardous for pregnant women
According to doctors, not only foil but also recycled colourful or white plastic jars, cups or consumption of food and beverage in any such product or can be fatal for health. The poisonous substances called Bisphenol A (BPA), present in plastic is dangerous for children and pregnant women. By gaining access to our body through food and beverages, lethal elements of plastic inhibit the development of brain. It has the most adverse impact on the memory of children. BPA also affects the process of forming hormones and their levels in the body. This has a negative effect on fertility.
Poisonous effects of polythene
Polythene or polyethylene is the most commonly used plastic. Presently its annual global production is 80 million tonnes. Its main use is in making plastic bags, plastic films, geomembrane, bottle and other products.
There are many types of polyethylene, most of which are formula (C2H4) nH2. In other words, polyethylene is a mixture of the same organic compounds. A polymer, polyethylene is formed by ethylene molecules, very useful substances. But due to not being biodegradable, it negatively impacts the environment.
Cause of fatalities among cows
As per a report, post-mortem of cows in the Kanha grove in Lucknow generally reveals the presence of up to eight kilogrammes of polyethylene in their stomachs. Polythene is banned in the province under the Environment Protection Act, 2003. Restrictions are in place for its use only less than 20 μm and less than 20×30 square cm size. Recycling of coloured polyethylene greatly harms the environment, hence it is also banned. There is absolute restriction on carrying food items the polythene bag.
Harmful to man and animals alike
Due to polyethylene waste, millions of animals and birds meet their end every year. People are becoming a prey to various diseases, the fertility of the land is being destroyed and the geological sources are becoming contaminated. Exposure to plastic increases the amount of phthalates in people’s blood. This thwarts the development of foetus in pregnant women’s womb, and damages the baby’s reproductive organs. Bisphenol chemical used in plastic products causes diabetes and creates abnormality in liver enzyme in the body. Burning polyethylene waste emits toxic gases like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and dioxins. These increase the risk of diseases related to respiratory track, skin etc.
Diseases like jaundice, diarrhoea, cholera, gastroenteritis are spreading today through unbridled use of plastic materials. Today more than 85 percent of various products are sold in plastic packing across the country.
Disruption in the environment cycle
Due to the deposit of plastic waste in the land, the circulation of rainwater gets hampered. As a result, ground water level falls. Plastic garbage is unable to assimilate in the natural cycle, due to which the entire environmental cycle is disturbed. Polyethylene is a petro-chemical product, which uses harmful chemicals. Coloured polyethylene is mainly made from fine particles of lead, black carbon, chromium, copper etc which is fatal to the health of all organisms and humans.
Need for proper plastic waste management
Many states have suggested remedies in terms of comparatively thick bags. The flow of these types of bags will be reduced substantially in solid waste stream because garbage pickers will separate them from other waste for recycling. Thin plastic bags do not get any special price and it is also difficult to isolate them. If the thickness of plastic bags is increased, then they will be slightly expensive and their indiscriminate usage will be reduced.
Disposal of plastic bags, water bottles and pouches as a waste is a challenge for the country’s waste management system. Various states have banned the use of plastic bags and bottles. The Central Government has also assessed the environmental damage caused by plastic waste. For this many committees and workforce were constituted from time to time, and those have submitted their report to the government.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests released Recycled Plastics Manufacture and Usage Rules in 1999, which were modified in 2003 under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1968 in order to regulate and manage the plastic bags and other material properly. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has issued notification regarding important parameters for soil soluble plastic. Ideally, only earth-soluble plastic bags should be used. Research work is in progress for the development of biologically soluble plastic.
Alternatives to plastics
As an alternative to plastic bags, jute, cloth and paper bags should be made popular and significant financial incentives should also be provided to popularise their use. However, it is also a matter of concern that in the manufacture of paper bags, trees are indiscriminately cut denuding the earth of its green cover.
The war against plastic
The whole country needs to be united to launch a campaign and every person should make at least 10 people in his vicinity aware of the risk of plastic used in everyday life.
In 2002, polythene bags had to be banned in Bangladesh because they had become the cause of floods in many areas. Polyethylene bags dissolve in about 500 or 600 years. Many times they do not go dissolve for a thousand years. The major disadvantage of this is that when they melt, they release many harmful chemicals in the soil, which are later found to be deadly for the marine creatures through river basins. In view of this, efforts are being made to increase awareness about plastic pollution in the country.
As per a Ministry of Environment reply tabled in Lok Sabha in August 2016, India generates more than 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste, of which 6,000 tonnes remain uncollected and littered. The rampant, indiscriminate littering and disposal of plastic waste can be attributed to lack of awareness and absence of effective tools to collect back the discarded plastic products including the wrapping material.
Today, plastic has become a huge problem in the country. Plastic pollution is increasing all over the world. According to an estimate, more than 500 billion polyethylene bags are used on the earth every year. In addition to harming the environment, polyethylene bags are being found in the sea through a large number of river basins every year. With this, many creatures in the ocean are fleeing from their respective habitat to save themselves. As a result, many species of living organisms are facing extinction. In such a situation, a special worldwide campaign to save the mankind and the environment from the harmful effects of plastic is the need of the hour.