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Hilal Her

Environmental Hazards of Plastic Waste

June 2023

Naturally, there is no waste that does not degrade. Humans, on the other hand, have created plastic, which will always be ‘unnatural’ in the environment due to its composition. Plastic production is affordable, and the material’s possibilities are limitless. Plastics have saturated every facet of human life, such as packaging, water transportation, agriculture, telecommunication, building construction, education, medicine, transportation, defense, and consumer durables, to name a few. Plastic pollution can alter habitats and natural processes, reducing ecosystems’ ability to adapt to climate change, directly affecting millions of people’s livelihoods, food production and social wellbeing.

Plastic is a polymeric substance, which means that its molecules are enormously big, resembling long chains made up of an apparently infinite succession of interconnecting links. Natural polymers such as rubber and silk abound, but these ‘plastics’ from nature have not been linked to environmental contamination since they do not persist in the environment.
Plastic waste is the accumulation of plastic objects, e.g., plastic bottles, etc., in the earth’s environment, adversely affecting wildlife habitats and human beings. It also refers to plastic waste not being recycled in a sustainable manner. Plastic is a toxic, non-biodegradable pollutant that pollutes air, land, water, etc. It causes severe environmental damage during its manufacture and disposal process. During its manufacturing, industries release a considerable quantity of carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, dioxin, volatile organic compounds and these toxic gases affect the environment inimically. 
Plastic waste is a global crisis that is augmented day by day. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, only 9% of plastic waste is successfully recycled worldwide. After UN talks on international action to reduce plastic waste, the OECD’s first Global Plastics Outlook shows that there has been an alarming increase in the plastics being utilized and disposed of in an unsustainable manner. Additionally, policies to control its disastrous translocation and adverse leakage into the environment are falling short. 
Presently, the average consumer is exposed to a wide range of plastic materials derived primarily from petroleum that can be molded, cast, spun, or coated as a coating that are designed particularly to resist natural decay processes. Furthermore, many lightweight single-use plastic products and packaging materials, which account for almost half of all plastics manufactured, are not placed in containers for eventual disposal in landfills, recycling centers, or incinerators.

During the last 30 years, plastic consumption has quadrupled, driven by the industrial growth in emerging markets. According to the OECD, global plastics production doubled to 460 million tons from 2000 to 2019. Merely 9% of plastic waste is recycled. About 19% is incinerated, 50% ends up in landfill, and 22% evades waste management systems and goes into uncontrolled dumpsites, is burned in open pits, or ends up in terrestrial or aquatic ecosystems, especially in underdeveloped countries. It is expected that global plastic flows into oceans will triple by the 2040.
Harmful chemicals can be released into surrounding soils by chlorinated plastics, which can seep into groundwater and other surrounding water bodies. Because the ocean flows downstream from almost every terrestrial place, it receives a large portion of the plastic debris generated on land. Every year, millions of tonnes of trash wind up in the world’s oceans, with much of it being improperly disposed waste. In water bodies, plastic waste contaminates and poisons the freshwater life.  Plastic debris clogs the sewage drains and creates stagnant water, which will be an ideal habitat for mosquitoes and other parasites. Pakistan alone produced an estimated 3.9 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2020. Around 70% of this plastic waste is mismanaged, left in landfills, unmanaged dumps, or strewn about land and water bodies across the country.
Similarly, the effects of plastics on marine life include the entanglement and ingestion of plastic debris by marine vertebrates. Over a million sea birds and mammals die annually from the ingestion of plastics. Plastics are mistaken for food and eaten by turtles, birds, seals, and whales, which leads to their poisoning, choking, impeding digestion, and causing starvation. About 44% of sea birds eat plastics mistakenly as food leading to suffocation or blockage of the digestive tract and they eventually die. 
Many different types of chemicals are being used in plastic manufacturing depending on the type and use of plastics. Some chemicals used in plastic manufacturing have the potential to be absorbed by human beings through direct skin absorption. These kinds of chemicals can cause dermatitis upon contact with human skin. As plastics come in different sizes, from larger to smaller, plastics pollution even affects the world’s smallest organisms, such as plankton. When these organisms become poisoned due to plastic ingestion, this causes problems for the larger animals that depend on them for food. This can cause many harmful effects along the food chain. Climate change is a significant threat to both humans and wildlife, and it is only getting worse as we continue to pump more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Almost all plastic is derived from materials (like ethylene and propylene) made from fossil fuels (mostly oil and gas). The process of extracting and transporting those fuels, then manufacturing plastic creates billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases. 
Reducing plastic waste at the household level is an essential step towards addressing the environmental hazards associated with plastic and this can also be done on an individual level. Minimize the plastic you bring into your home by choosing products with less packaging or replacing plastic. Before disposal of plastic items, consider if they can be reused for another purpose. For example, plastic containers can be reused for storage or organizing items, and plastic bags can be used multiple times. Study your local recycling programs and guidelines to ensure that you recycle correctly. Separate recyclable plastics from other waste and clean them before recycling. Composting food leftovers and yard waste can distract a substantial portion of your household waste from landfills. To minimize single-use plastic consumption, select reusable alternatives, such as stainless steel straws, bamboo cutlery, etc. Look for products and packaging made from biodegradable or compostable materials. 
As far as plastic waste management is concerned, it requires comprehensive and coordinated actions. Here are some strategies that can be implemented:
•    Policies for proper plastic waste management are needed that include regulations on waste collection, segregation, recycling infrastructure, and landfill management. 
•   Governments can enforce Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies, which hold manufacturers accountable for the entire lifecycle of their products, including post-consumer waste management. This can incentivize manufacturers to design more sustainable packaging, promote recycling, and invest in recycling infrastructure.
•    Initiatives should be taken to introduce bans or restrictions on single-use plastics, such as plastic bags, straws, and polystyrene foam containers. 
•   Public awareness campaigns must be launched to educate citizens about the environmental impacts of plastic waste and the importance of responsible plastic consumption and disposal.
•   Collaboration at the international level is crucial to address the colossal problem of plastic waste. Cooperation can include sharing best practices, technology transfer, and joint efforts to combat the marine plastic pollution.
•  Cooperation between the government, industry shareholders, and civil society is essential to drive significant change and create a sustainable future with reduced plastic waste. HH

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