062 Can we be free from Single-use Plastics?

Denzil Prato

April 14, 2022

Everywhere I go, from malls to public spaces, I see the flyer, ‘Say No To Single-Use Plastics.’ I think to myself, “What a joke!” Though our policymakers announced such radical transformations and promise us a better future there seems to be no point in telling people to stop the Use of Single-Use Plastics. The juice packet that I was sipping a few minutes ago used to come in a tetrapak, and these days we get them in a bag made of recycled paper. For a while, you read this statement, and think, yes, what’s wrong with that? A paper bag to hold a packet of juice sounds very eco-friendly. But then yet again how does a paper bag hold in a liquid that does not deform the integrity of the bag. The crème de la crème is that the bag’s inner layer is coated with a thin layer of plastic that helps the bag hold the contents of the juice for a much longer time. But even though this is a more eco-friendly solution, there is still a component of plastic still being used. But what are we consumers supposed to do when there is no suitable wholly sustainable alternative to the single-use items that we come across today?

In easy words, single-use plastics are goods made primarily from fossil fuel-based chemicals and are meant to be disposed off right after use – often, in mere minutes. Single-use plastics are most commonly used for packaging and service ware, such as bottles, wrappers, straws and bags. To be inclusive, there are a lot of single-use plastics that are not only reasonable but yet highly important, such as surgical gloves, or a plastic straw for people with disabilities, but these cases account for a very minute fraction of the plastics generated.

Another example is the bag of chips that we buy for the occasional snack. Whenever I buy my favourite pack of flavoured chips, I unconsciously get a satisfying grin on my face. But for many years there has been a deep restraint in the change in packaging where certain packaging materials can’t be recycled. These packets are designed to be multi-layered as each layer performs a different function. But certain companies manufacture bio-degradable packaging that is made from a corn-based polymer. The only issue with this sort of packaging is that the cost is not economical.

The worst aspect of single-use plastics is their inability to be recycled. Recycling plastics takes place but at a very small scale globally, compared to the amount of plastic waste generated. Recycling not only reduces plastic footprint but also reduces the waste that is generated from plastics. More importantly, the plastics can be changed to some of the polyester fibres that can be used for fabrics. It is estimated that an enormous 91% of all plastic waste is not recycled over the world. Single-use plastics – especially small items like straws, bags and cutlery – are traditionally hard to recycle because they fall into the crevices of the recycling machinery and thus are not accepted into the recycling chain.

But what about the plastics that don’t get recycled? Many of the plastics eventually end up in landfills, which lie dormant under the heat of the sun. Here, the breaking down of the plastics’ molecular bonds happens under the sun’s UV rays, causing the plastic to “break” and disintegrate into smaller pieces, sometimes even smaller than 5 millimetres (even in the range of nanometers). This is how microplastics are found in our environment. Overuse and overproduction of plastic without correct disposal leads to the generation of uncontrollable microplastics that dissipate into tiny crevices all around us unnoticeable to us. These days reports have been reporting that microplastics have also been observed in human bloodstream and lung deposits.

These days, policies are made to benefit the ones with a position of power. What about the powerless? What about the common man? What about the cry of nature? But more importantly, what about a compromise, an alternative? Alternatives do exist, but there is not enough initiative taken up by the policymakers and us as individuals as well to change this dynamic that would create cleaner trash, more biodegradable which will in turn cause lesser harm and stress to our environment.