Everything that is regarded as waste, and pollutes the environment, was once a useful item within the human society.
A heap of maize stalks in a field first contributed greatly to the farmer’s harvest before becoming useless. Pieces of paper were once important receipts, manuscripts or school notes before they were disposed of. The same is also true of plastics.
Plastics, in whatever form they exist, are an important addition to the needs of modern society. To begin with, plastics were developed to defeat natural processes of degradation. Plastics cannot be damaged by water or moisture. Plastics do not rust. Plastics do not rot.
As a result, plastics are used in packaging to prevent moisture induced product damage. In recent years, households and institutions have replaced metallic water tanks with plastic ones to rule out damage by rust. Furthermore, polyvinylchloride, a plastic commonly known as PVC, replaced rubber in electrical wiring products because it does not rot.
Yet these same properties make plastics an important environmental problem. After being used, plastics remain in the environment once disposed of because they do not rot. Plastics also have low melting temperatures which make it practically impossible recycle.
Therefore, plastics have accumulated in the environment to the point that they have been observed to cause noticeable problems.
In 2018, the theme for the World Environment Day is “End Plastic Pollution.” This is serves as a statement of just how significant the problem is on a global scale.
As an agent of land pollution, plastics affect the natural processes of degradation that occur in the soil; thereby reducing organic matter content in the soil. This reduces the quality of the soil in crop production.
At the same time, plastic wastes are a sore sight to behold. This is especially true of busy spots countrywide; market places, bus terminals, trading centres, etc. These often have awful surroundings due to plastic wastes that are cluttered all around.
Plastics also affect the usability of water. Particularly in Malawi, plastics (and other waste) are intentionally disposed of in streams. When not done intentionally, plastics still end up in streams due to lack of consistency and effectiveness in existing waste management processes. Three things are likely to happen when plastics end up in water.
Firstly, the accumulation of plastic in moving water will reduce the water’s speed leading to stagnation. Stagnant water is breeding grounds for diseases and disease causing organisms. And stagnant water also increases its turbidity, making it unusable.
Secondly, plastics endanger aquatic organisms. When plastics cover the surface of the water, they affect the penetration of much needed light and air into the water. This in turn affects the living organisms there in. There are also many reported cases from around the world of animals ingesting or being suffocated by plastics in water – leading to death.
Thirdly, certain plastics have water soluble chemical elements that are toxic to plants and animals alike. When plastic waste ends up in water, these toxic solutes may be transferred during watering or domestication. Such chemicals have also been on the record to cause infections in humans.
Furthermore, plastics are part of the climate change equation. Plastics are petroleum products; meaning that they have properties similar to those of petrol and diesel. When burned, plastics produce the same kinds of gases emitted by petroleum powered engines. Even the very process of producing them, is a climate hazard.
It is, therefore, important to carefully consider the use and disposal of plastics. On a global average, 40 per cent of all plastic waste is packaging. In the simplest expression, 40 per cent of all plastic waste was not needed.
For example, one can enter a shop to buy washing powder and a loaf of bread. First of all, each of the items will have its own branded plastic wrapping.
Once purchased, the shop owner will courteously offer a plastic bag; but before the packet of washing powder is put in the plastic bag, it will be put into a smaller polythene bag to prevent any mixing of the two. At the end of the day, after having breakfast and doing the laundry, there will be four plastics that have to be thrown away.
Or it could be a bottle of water. It could be a chitumbuwa. The point is we use a lot more plastic than we actually need. Even after government placed a ban on the production and use of thin, single use plastics, they are still everywhere.While policy solutions are needed, choices made by citizens have more effect.
If we were a society that cares for the environment, we would have speedily adopted the more sustainable options. Instead of having to buy a shopping bag every time we go shopping, we could adopt the use of reusable shopping bags made of degradable cloth or paper.
We could also make strong preference for other than plastic packaged drinks to reduce the prevalence of plastic waste.
Individual choices will collectively amount to significant impact on the problem of plastic pollution.
They say diamonds are forever; but so are plastics. Only plastics are environmental pollutants.
End plastic pollution.
The article was first published by The Daily Times-Times Group.