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Why We Need a Holistic Approach to Tackle Plastic Pollution

By: Huria Liaqat

Plastic pollution has become an emerging concern reckoning havoc across the globe posing threats to nature and living beings due to its non-biodegradability, persistence, and durability. Global consumption and production patterns of plastics have increased more rapidly recently than in the past. Unfortunately, plastic along with its monomers and polymers not only accounts for an estimated 65 percent of global solid waste but also takes approximately 20 to 500 years to decompose.

Plastics mainly microplastic has become a marker of the relic records of the current geological era of Earth. A new microbial aquatic habitat of plastics has been identified and given the name plastisphere that solely accounts for approximately 8 million tons of plastic waste entering the water bodies mainly oceans disturbing the life underwater every year. Therefore, the magnitude of this plastic’s input needs to be understood at each scale i.e., from the production to its distribution, management, and disposal.

In the twenty-first century, Plastic has been one of the fastest-emerging markets in Pakistan. Pakistan has been ranked as the sixth largest producer and consumer of plastic across the globe with over 20 to 30 percent of the municipal solid waste where only 10 percent of which is recyclable plastic whereas the rest 60 percent is not useful in any way.

Additionally, the use of plastics due to their exceptional properties has increased multifold replacing the other products made from glass, wood, metal, and ceramics. A historic shift has been observed in the last ten years towards single-use plastic products including shopping bags, beverage cans, water bottles, and packaging materials with severe socioeconomic, environmental, and health implications. An estimated 85 percent of these plastics, if mismanaged, end up in landfills where they add toxic chemicals and heavy metals to the soil and are taken up by the plants and some of it is leached directly into the groundwater and nearby water bodies resulting in more serious environmental concerns.

In nature, most plastics do not degrade completely rather are broken down into monomers i.e., microplastic that flows easily through the different levels of the food chains be they terrestrial or aquatic. The full impact of the ingestion of microplastics is yet to be known however, they have been found in the livers, lungs, kidneys, spleen, and placenta of the human bodies according to a recent study on microplastics.

There is substantial evidence on the chemicals associated with plastic pollution e.g., methyl mercury, and the ones from flame retardants, etc, and their associated health risks. Therefore, there is a dire need to change the production methods and our attitude towards the consumption and disposal of plastic to reduce our addiction despite its valuable services. Our planet and all living beings are choking today due to our own vagaries where we take nature and its services for granted. Moreover, by 2040, the greenhouse emissions associated with conventional fuels-based plastic production is estimated to grow about 19 percent of the total carbon budget of the globe. This is why it is crucial to not only understand the magnitude of output associated to plastic pollution but to also implement the most operative interventions for its reduction.

In countries with poor plastic waste management mainly developing countries like Pakistan, plastic waste is observed to clog sewers and provides breeding grounds for insects and pests such as mosquitoes leading to a rapid spread of vector-borne diseases in those areas. Many countries have already banned imports such as plastic scraps containing high contamination residuals, and other hazardous additives, and have improvised strict monitoring and management measures to make sure of their utility in the industrial sector only. However, unfortunately, this is not applicable in Pakistan as the discarded plastic on daily basis adds to the financial profits of the manufacturers and the fact that we lack the proper recycling facilities and the ignorance of the government in the manufacturing sector has also led to extensive violations of the regulations related to the processing and manufacturing of hazardous plastic within the country. In a nutshell, the environmental concerns related to plastic pollution serve as an ultimate catastrophe in the near future. This is why the improvement in the solid waste management sector of a country is highly essential to tackle the problem of plastic pollution before it’s too late. It’s no wonder that the government can serve a key role in elucidating and minimizing plastic pollution through strict improvisions such as bans, but it is also an individual’s responsibility to follow the 3Rs i.e. reduce, reuse, and recycle by saying no to plastic products we do not need. This will help reduce unnecessary plastic production, its manufacturing, and ultimately reduce packaging. This not only ensures sustainability and innovation in the businesses to switch to reusable plastic products that are easy to recycle but also provides reliable information to the consumers to make informed purchasing to reduce its impacts on both terrestrial and marine wildlife.

The writer is a research intern at the Department of Meteorology, COMSATS University Islamabad. She can be reached at [email protected]

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