Come the World Environment Day and there are talks of banning the plastics. Arre Baba, if the plastics were to be banned then why did they grow to such usage in the first place? Obviously plastics lie at the very heart and constitution of the modern civilization. Banning plastics is therefore akin to the banning of pottery of the Neolithic human. The resistance of plastics to bio degradability too is an essential reason for this material to emerge as indispensable to human civilization. Banning plastics will mean throwing away the baby with the bath water and may well paralyze the modern civilisation.
If we trace the development of materials from stone to copper, bronze, glass and steel, plastics form the latest development. The properties of plastics constitutes the very essence of our postmodern civilization so to speak.
We have plastic carry bags and which means that we are spared the burden of carrying around our shopping bags. We can shop anywhere and everywhere, anytime and every time we remember something. I distinctly remember the pre plastic carry bag days when shopping was a ritual, we were restricted in both space and time. One had to touch base home only to fetch the shopping bag, well they would vary from being canvas or jute and then nylon. Plastic bags gave humans both freedom of time and space. The plastic carry bag made packing food so much simpler; I have seen hot soup, scalding tea or piping hot sambar being carried in plastic bags. During my childhood, we could never think of packing soup! Even phuchka water is packed in plastic bags for home delivery.
Plastic pipes, known as PVC pipes have helped address almost the entire water supply efforts of homes and municipalities; water tanks are now wholly made of plastics. Plastics are in our tiffin boxes and water bottles, in our school stationery and medicine bottles, in our storage solutions and furniture. The lightness of plastics, the ability to withstand moisture, rust free, unbreakability and resistance to reactions from a wide variety of chemicals and low cost which leads to disposability and therefore better hygiene ideally suits the patterns of life, both supporting as well as engendering the same. Plastics is the material of Industry 4.0, plastics is the material for a post-industrial, post computer world, where portability, renewability, disposability are intrinsic essences. The non-biodegradability of plastics is however an outcome, a curse of a great boon and it is plain silly to let go of such a huge endowment because of the side effects. Therefore the issue is one of how to manage plastics as garbage.
As garbage, plastics have a huge future as well. Plastics can be incinerated, pressed, pulped to generate heat and electricity, materials for laying on roads, manufacturing bricks and even derivatives for purposes of producing cheap adhesives for civil constructions. Investments towards equipment for waste management of plastics is much lower than machines that make compost out of organic waste. Then why does plastics choke our oceans and suffocate our whales, why do we have mountains of plastic heap making residential colonies the proverbial jatugriha of the Mahabharata?
The problem with plastic is the problem of collecting it as waste. Do we see wastes of iron and steel, copper or brass, gold or silver lying around? We don’t because these are precious due to high recyclability value. While plastics are hugely recyclable as well, the price per unit volume is too low making it pointless for the scrap scavengers collect the same. The papers are sold in kabaddi but not thermacol, not plastics. This collection of plastics as kabaddi or to scrounge it as scrap becomes uneconomical for the scavenger because plastic is too cheap to yield any rewards.
Bangkok is a city free of plastics, most streets of Kolkata are as well free of soiled bags eddying around. Yet, these are two cities which I know personally are hugely dependent on plastics. Much of the commerce in both the cities take place on pavements as plastics is the material for the pavement, for the movement, for the upward social mobility and for struggles towards dignity. Goods and food are packed in plastics, cooked hot meals, cool beverages and fresh fruits are served in plastics for men and women who hit the streets early in the morning never to return before night falls; plastics have made sure that the poor get their meals and plastics have hugely freed women from being incarcerated into homes. Yet, Bangkok and some streets in Kolkata are free of plastics and the only reason for this is the wonderful waste collection mechanism of the municipality staff.
The economics of plastics as waste is such that individual garbage collectors find it uneconomical and hence we are left to depend on our public authorities. It is then up to the public authorities to integrate further in waste management. Sweden has done this so effectively that it now imports garbage from across the world; if it runs out of garbage it cannot have electricity! This is the way to go, for plastics are here to stay, it is how efficiently we manage the waste that matters. Management of plastics is thus city planning, service planning, service pricing, energy policy planning, civil construction rules and the development of plastic wastes as a veritable industry which needs the mind of economists, sociologists, town planners, engineers and of course managers and administrators.