Plastic with its exclusive qualities of being light yet strong and economical, has invaded every aspect of our day-to-day life. It has many advantages: it is durable, light, easy to mould, and can be adapted to different user requirements. Once hailed as a 'wonder material', plastic is now a serious worldwide environmental and health concern, essentially due to its nonbiodegradable nature.
In India, the plastic industry is growing phenomenally. Plastics have use in all sectors of the economy infrastructure, construction, agriculture, consumer goods, telecommunications, and packaging.
But the good news is that along with a growth in the use, a country-wide network for collection of plastic waste through rag pickers, waste collectors and waste dealers and recycling enterprises has sprung all over the country over the last decade or so. More than 50% of the plastic waste generated in the country is recycled and used in the manufacture of various plastic products.
Conventional plastics have been associated with reproductive problems in both wildlife and humans. Studies have shown a decline in human sperm count and quality, genital abnormalities and a rise in the incidence of breast cancer. Dioxin a highly carcinogenic and toxic by-product of the manufacturing process of plastics, is one of the chemicals believed to be passed on through breast milk to the nursing infant. Burning of plastics, especially PVC releases this dioxin and also furan into the atmosphere. Thus, conventional plastics, right from their manufacture to their disposal are a major problem to the environment.
Plastics are so versatile in use that their impacts on the environment are extremely wide ranging. Careless disposal of plastic bags chokes drains, blocks the porosity of the soil and causes problems for groundwater recharge. Plastic disturbs the soil microbe activity, and once ingested, can kill animals. Plastic bags can also contaminate foodstuffs due to leaching of toxic dyes and transfer of pathogens. In fact, a major portion of the plastic bags i.e. approximately 60-80% of the plastic waste generated in India is collected and segregated to be recycled. The rest remains strewn on the ground, littered around in open drains, or in unmanaged garbage dumps. Though only a small percentage lies strewn it is this portion that is of concern as it causes extensive damage to the environment.
The plastic industry in the developed world has realized the need of environmentally acceptable modes for recycling plastics wastes and has set out targets and missions. Prominent among such missions are the Plastic Waste Management Institute in Japan, the European Centre for Plastics in Environment, the Plastic Waste Management Task Force in Malaysia. Manufacturers, civic authorities, environmentalists and the public have begun to acknowledge the need for plastics to conform to certain guidelines/standards and code of conduct for its use.
Designing eco-friendly, biodegradable plastics is the need of the hour. Though partially biodegradable plastics have been developed and used, completely biodegradable plastics based on renewable starch rather than petrochemicals have only recently been developed and are in the early stages of commercialization.
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