Tik Tik Plastic

by | Jan 4, 2020

Image courtesy Pexel. Landfills are the new and ugly truths of our cities across the country

Plastic is a word that originally meant ‘pliable and easily shaped.’ This quality of plastic proved it to be a boon, for human race. Within a short span of around 150 years, it became an indispensable part of our life. It was in year 1862 Alexender Parkes, publicly demonstrated the first man-made plastic at Great International Exhibition in London. This material, exhibited at the 1862 London International Exhibition, anticipated many of the modern aesthetic and utility uses of plastics. The journey of plastic into our daily lives is fascinating …

The material called Parkesine, that Alexender Parkes invented, was an organic material derived from cellulose that once heated could be molded and retained its shape when cooled.  Parkesine plastics were made by dissolving nitrocellulose (a flammable nitric ester of cotton or wood cellulose) in solvents such as alcohol or wood naphtha and mixing in plasticizers such as vegetable oil or camphor (a waxy substance originally derived from the oils of the Asian camphor tree. In 1866,  Alexender Parkes set up The Parkesine Company at Hackney Wick, London, for bulk low-cost production. It was not commercially successful, however, for Parkesine was expensive to produce, prone to cracking and highly flammable. The business closed in 1868.

After that the first synthetic polymer, was invented by John Wesley Hyatt. He invented celluloid as a substitute for the ivory in billiard balls in 1868. The invention of celluloid was an inspired by New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide substitute for ivory. The growing popularity of ivory had already put a strain on the supply of natural ivory. But this development not only helped the people, but also the environment.

Advertisements praised celluloid as the savior of the elephant and the tortoise. Plastics could protect the natural world from the destructive forces of human need. Besides billiard balls, celluloid became famous as the first flexible photographic film used for still photography and motion pictures. Hyatt created celluloid in a strip format for movie film. By 1900, movie film was an exploding market for celluloid.

It was in 20th century, that the use of plastic got prominence. The World War II necessitated, great expansion of plastic industry in the United States. An urge to preserve the already scarce resources, gave way for the plastic industry to emerge successfully. This made the production of synthetic plastic a priority. Nylon, undoubtedly became the best material that could be used for parachutes rope, helmet etc. Plastic challenged nearly every material, due to its wide-ranging characteristics and low price. It replaced steel in cars, papers and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture. The possibilities with the use of plastic gave some observers the utopian vision of the future, until the large amount of plastic debris was noticed in 1960’s.

The unblemished optimism about plastic didn’t last for long. The benefits were already counted till now, but the harmful effects also started coming into picture. Due to its exceptional qualities, in very short span of time plastic became so indispensable in our life. But this everyday convenience, has led to the problems that we couldn’t discern. Hardly, can we think of any consumable item that doesn’t contain plastic in it, today. This unthought consumption pattern has led to the piling of huge dumps of plastic waste in cities.

In this year of my fellowship, I have been working on PRITHVI project supported by United Nations Development Program. The project aspires to reduce the quantum of plastic waste going to dump-yard. For that Waste Warriors, does Information, Education and Communication (IEC) activities to make people aware about the harmful effects of plastic waste, if not managed properly. For any new intervention, we generally do a community meeting. Here, we educate people about how unmanaged plastic waste is deteriorating the quality of life. Then we tell them, that there are possibilities of making new and innovative things from plastic, if we start segregating it.

Segregation simply put means, separating your wet waste and dry waste into two different bins. Wet waste consists kitchen waste like vegetable peel, tea and coffee bags, and any left-over food. Dry waste consists of two categories, recyclables and non-recyclables. Metal, glass, aluminium cans and foils, and plastic comes under recyclable. And sanitary pads, we encourage segregation as mix waste is difficult to manage. When it is separated into categories of wet and dry waste. We show them some demo objects, like coasters made out of multi-layered plastic, plastic bricks and pavement blocks made out of recycled plastic. The purpose being, when people get a sense of what exactly the product that is made out of their household waste looks like. It will not be considered as waste, and at least it may not be littered around in these streets. I consider myself successful in promoting the idea of segregation in the community, as fair number of people have understood and started the idea of waste segregation. 

Explains segregation through an IEC colateral. Image courtesy Pinterest

While segregation of household waste is no doubt the first and foremost step for better waste management in the city. It also has several burgeoning skepticism. One of it is,

When people start segregation, they tend to be proud of their habit of segregation. Which of course is a good reason to be. But no reduction in the amount of plastic generated from a single household also raises concern. Apparently, it seems like sending plastic waste for recycling after properly segregating their waste, is a license to use plastic.

Not all waste is recyclable. Image courtesy Wikipedia

But when we say plastic is recyclable, following facts are to be kept in mind. 

  • Not all plastic is recyclable.

Recycling depends largely on the demand of the recycled material, and available Infrastructure in your city. It doesn’t matter much even if you place your plastic in recycling bin, if the product made from recycled plastic has no demand. Recycling of plastic involves cost that goes into the process. If the recycler is unable to get the cost back, recycling can not be sustainable for him and the environment.

  • Coffee cups can’t actually be recycled.

Every coffee cup has a plastic layer inside that helps in containing the liquid. The PP (polypropylene) film protects the liquid from seeping into the paper and keeps your warm drinks from cooling down. There are many such items, which are covered with thin layer of plastic that is not visible to naked eyes. These multiple layers cannot be separated by hands, and need special machines. Thus, making it difficult to recycle.

  • You can’t recycle dirty plastic.

For any plastic to be recycled, it should be of decent quality. Plastic containing food residue on it, needs to be clean at source. It is nearly impossible to clean dirty plastic at the recycling facility. When plastic waste also contains food residue on it. It becomes hard to recycle.

  • Recycling plastic downgrades its quality.

It is a fact that any type of plastic can only be recycled for certain number of times. With every stage of recycling, the quality of plastic degrades. When it comes to the market, recycled plastic has to compete with the products made from virgin plastic. Thus, to improve the quality of recycled product many producers mix considerable amount of virgin plastic.

For these factors, recycling cannot be considered as a panacea for the waste management problems. Reduce and reuse, comes much before recycle. And it should be practiced in the same sequence too. Reducing the use of plastic and aspiring towards zero waste life style, is hard but the last resort.

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