The Plastic Crisis

When I was growing up, my family had always been big recyclers; we had a whole system set up outdoors with different colored trash cans for aluminum cans, tin cans, glass containers and bottles, plastic containers, and newspapers. My parents would spend time educating us about the dangers of plastic in the ocean with endless stories about how six-pack soda plastic rings were choking sea turtles and sea birds and why we must never forget to cut them up. Growing up, my family deeply appreciated nature and what is natural; luckily, this appreciation was instilled in my mind almost as soon as I could walk.

Photo by Antoine GIRET on Unsplash

My parents grew up in the countryside on farms with their families, so understanding the earth and how it worked was vital to survival. It’s a stark contrast to my husband’s experience as a child. His family did not start participating in recycling until it became mandatory in the city and neighborhood where they lived. I confess I was shocked when he told me this because naively, I thought that everyone was keenly aware of the need to recycle and chose to do it in this modern age.

Being married to someone I would have deemed a “gross polluter” made presenting this topic all the more important because my husband grew up in the Northeast of the United States, surrounded by the highly educated, and still had to be pushed into recycling. This new knowledge that I am so closely associated with someone who was not recycling until later in life prompted me to think that his story might represent a certain percentage of the population. They will not take action to start helping on these significant global issues that are affecting all of us until prompted or forced.

Every single person on the planet causes the plastic problem. It affects all countries and coastlines, making it easy to see the results of our plastic addiction daily.

We must begin to work together towards a solution for improvement regarding plastic, so I reached out to Dimple Behal, an urban and regional planner with a specialized focus on the environment. Ms. Behal was working with the Government of Odisha in India to implement the state’s urban sanitation strategy in 114 of the Urban Local Bodies of Odisha. Her work was closely associated with blackwater, solid waste management, and sanitation workers handling waste. With Odisha’s large population of over 43 million people, Ms. Behal’s work was critical to maintaining healthy conditions within the region. She is currently working on waste management and urban flooding with the Government of Mumbai. Through her work and longstanding passion for preserving and protecting the environment in India, Ms. Behal has gained intimate knowledge and experience with the plastic crisis. She is an online environmental enthusiast and activist showing the public how she manages waste at home and how to make eco-friendly swaps for the products they use.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

My Interview with Dimple Behal

What is the Real Environmental Damage Done by Plastic?

“Every year, around 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean, and only 9% is recycled. We don’t know where it is going. Everyone says the plastic is going to be recycled, we are going to incinerate it, it is going to be managed, we are going to convert from waste to energy, but we don’t know. Since the 1950s, humans have produced almost 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, and we still don’t know where it has been, more than 60% of it. It’s still existing on the earth.

We eat plastic when we consume seafood or chicken. It is impacting our health. Plastic has come into our bodies. It has come into our lungs; it has come into our bloodstream.”

According to the UN Environment Programme, very little of the plastic we discard every day is recycled or incinerated in waste-to-energy facilities. Much of it ends up in landfills, where it may take up to 1,000 years to decompose, leaching potentially toxic substances into the soil and water.

Researchers in Germany are warning that the impact of microplastics in soils, sediments, and freshwater could have a long-term negative effect on such ecosystems. They say terrestrial microplastic pollution is much higher than marine microplastic pollution — estimated at four to 23 times higher, depending on the environment.

The researchers conclude that, although little research has been conducted in this area, the results to date are concerning. Fragments of plastic are present practically all over the world and can trigger many kinds of adverse effects.

The study estimates that one-third of all plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwater. Most of this plastic disintegrates into particles smaller than five millimeters, known as microplastics, and these break down further into nanoparticles (less than 0.1 micrometer in size). The problem is that these particles are entering the food chain.

Why Isn’t Recycling Taking Care of this Issue?

“Plastic was created in 1862. We realized that in 1988 that recycling must be done. That is when the recycling arrow came into the picture. That is what you see; moreover, these days on, plastic bottles and different kinds of plastic packaging can be recycled and items that cannot be recycled. The major hindrance comes from the industries which are producing them. So generally, these plastics have different kinds of plastic in them. Some of them you don’t even know those are existing in your lifestyle.

Photo by Aleksandr Kadykov on Unsplash

For example, if you’re using a non-stick pan with a Teflon coating, a nylon rope, or a polyester fabric on your body, you don’t even know this is plastic. These are the things that contain plastic and are not going to be recyclable anywhere. The Teflon coatings are going to enter our bodies. Then it will go into the rivers and the oceans as microplastics. There is no way for it to be recycled. It is only going to come to us, going to the food chain or impacting the biodiversity or the ecology around it.

This is just one part of the problem. Another part is the recycling of plastic bottles and food packaging items.

You see many people demanding these plastic bottles because they can be recycled. Many of the recyclers are making plastic pellets out of them, and then they are also sending them to the cement industry. That is how it is going. It is getting reused. Some of our plastic packaging items, like a fiber or a plastic filter which we generally use to cover our food, we don’t know where they will end up being. You know, these days I’ve also seen on the notebooks, there is one kind of plastic film on the notebooks, over the cardboard, you know we don’t know if it is going to be recycled anytime soon.

Similarly, the syringes we use in hospitals, we throw them in biohazard waste, but we don’t know what to do about it. Many of them are not getting recycled. The same for artificial limbs, switches, and the wire coatings we are using. So plastic is everywhere. Most of it is not getting recycled because we don’t know how to do it. We know some of it, but the major problem is how to segregate this kind of waste and how we go about it. When we are not segregating the trash, the challenge comes for recycling and reusing too.”

Do Biodegradable Plastic Products Make A Difference?

“The agriculturally based plastics, which we talk about are expensive.; it takes a lot of energy to make them. Bioplastics are made from feedstocks, like sugar cane. But the problem with them is they won’t decompose in your backyard. They need some commercial composting operations.

It acts as plastic in landfills or oceans, degrading very slowly. If we say it is biodegradable, like any unsegregated leaf, vegetable, or fruit peel that goes to the dumping site, it will not decompose very quickly. It will take a lot of years. This decomposing process is one of the things which we still need to think about.

Paper, cardboard, and glass are more energy-intensive. Glass, once it is broken, can be recycled but is more energy-intensive, and the same for paper and cardboard. Of course, it is biodegradable, but it comes with much energy or consumption. If we talk about the types of plastics we have these days, we have thermoplastics which are generally softened when we heat them. If you are heating a polyester fabric, it will change its shape and soften; same with the nylon, carpet, clothes, or furniture; these are thermoplastics.”

One of the types of plastic causing the greatest problems globally, according to Surfers Against Sewage, is single-use plastic which is used on average for 15 minutes yet could take 100–300 years to fragment.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Remembering the Sanitation Workers

“We’re not even thinking about the people dealing with the cleanup of the messes on the planet each one of us is making.

We should be talking about this very critical issue because when we talk about the people who will be impacted by climate change or environmental risks, these are the most important ones we should be talking about. When we throw out our waste, we tend to forget who is going to manage this waste. We dispose of sanitary napkins, condoms, or food packaging without washing it. These kinds of things create an enormous impact on the people who are going to manage this waste around us.

If you’re drinking Coca-Cola, you dispose of the same bottle without even washing it. So, if it is recycled, it has to be washed. And then it must be sent to the recyclers, and then it can be reused. We tend to forget the people who are doing this. These people come from marginalized sections of society. They don’t have access to better health. They do their work without wearing gloves and masks because they don’t have access to all these things.

In some areas, they don’t even have access to water to wash their hands, and they don’t have a sanitizer. They don’t have access to the toilet where they can feel hygienic. Handling this waste is a substantial phenomenon; think about yourself. You are in a dumping yard and in front of piles of garbage. Will you be able to stand in front of it? Of course not, because the people who are going to handle this waste, who are going to touch this waste, who will breathe in this kind of waste, will feel the impact every day. We need to look into what kind of conditions they are working in.

The people who clean the septic tanks come in contact with partially digested or fully digested poop. Think about how it would feel if someone did something like that. In India, manual scavenging is still prevalent in which people generally clean the septic tanks or the pits where the poop is usually flushed or the sewage lines. So, this is where most of the deaths in India take place. Who are those people? People who belong to the lower class, the marginalized sections of society who don’t have access to better healthcare, and their families will be at risk — all these things we need to investigate. Look around your surroundings and see what is really happening. What is the condition of sanitation workers around you, and what are they doing? How is the waste around you getting managed? Where is the plastic going? Once you start answering these questions, your lifestyle will automatically change. “

The overwhelming plastic problem leaves many people feeling helpless, but according to Ms. Behal, there are alternatives to giving up.

How Can We Get People to Start Using Alternative Methods or Products?

“There are great alternatives to switch from a pump body wash to bar soap or a shampoo bar. So, these are good practices, but there are many more alternatives for Indians and people who live close to nature. In India, there are a lot of things that we can do for our body, for our scalp, and everything. I make my hair mask every time I have to wash my hair.

It is purely zero waste, no plastic. It is just a mixture of a few kinds of powders. Similar things can also be done in your area when you know something is good for your body. For example, one thing called a basin is good for your body; it helps your body clean its pores. Generally, you can apply it to your body if you can eat something.

When we talk about single-use plastic, our beverages have plastic straws every time we go to restaurants. Steel straws or any reusable straw can replace plastic straws. You can carry them anywhere. When you are traveling, bring your reusable glass. In India, they serve the juices or the beverages on the street; vendors serve those with plastic.

The best way I handle this is to bring my own steel cup or a bottle for my drink or to put juice in. Whenever you are going shopping, please avoid using plastics. Carry your own bag, even for vegetables, and try to shop locally because when you go to the big shopping malls, even though they provide good discounts, it comes with a good amount of plastic packaging.

These kinds of things you can easily include into your lifestyle. Maybe use the plastics you already have to make a bottle garden, at home, using the shampoo bottles, water bottles, or anything. So, you know, the basic idea is if you cannot use that plastic, please give it to someone if it could be reused. Recently, I got a message someone had plastic hangers at home for her children. Her children were grown, and she didn’t know what to do about it. I told her why don’t you give it to the orphanage or a new mom. We blindly sometimes over-consume things we don’t even need.

When you have done that, it is time to shift your lifestyle, change your life so that you live less plastic friendly, and consume less since it is impossible to give up on plastic a hundred percent.”

How is Plastic A Reflection of Our Global Culture?

“If you compare it to earlier times, your parents and your grandparents never used to over-consume things maybe because of lesser money or less economic development, but the more we have developed, the more our desire to have money increases. The more money we have, the more we consume and the more impact we have on the planet. Let’s be very mindful of all these things. Once we are mindful of the people around us, we will also be aware of our consumption. We should be cautious about the beautiful TV ads which say it is eco-friendly or sustainable and ask them on what basis they are saying this. We throw everything away.”

What is the Environmental Outlook Podcast About

“The Environmental Outlook Podcast brings our stories from across India about people battling and adapting to continuously changing environmental conditions in this era. We have been talking about living a conscious life with environmental awareness and making you think about how your tiny actions will create a global impact. We will bring the stories of the community focusing now on India and talking about what kind of emerging environmental risks are coming up and what they are doing and how can you contribute towards solving it.”

About Dimple Behal

Dimple Behal is an Urban & Regional Planner specializing in the environment. Ms. Behal was working with the Government of Odisha in India to implement the state’s urban sanitation strategy in 114 of the Urban Local Bodies of Odisha. Her work was closely associated with blackwater, solid waste management, and sanitation workers handling waste.

With Odisha’s population of over 43 million people, Ms. Behal’s work was critical to maintaining healthy conditions within the region. She is currently with the Government of Mumbai in waste management and urban flooding. Through her work and longstanding passion for preserving and protecting the environment in India, Ms. Behal has gained intimate knowledge and experience with the plastic crisis. She is an online environmental enthusiast and activist showing the public how she manages waste at home, how to make eco-friendly swaps for the products they use, eat vegan-friendly meals, and enjoy nature.

Additionally, Ms. Behal is a contributing writer for Down to Earth India, a magazine specializing in environmental issues in India and the world. She is the host of the Environmental Outlook podcast.

About the Author

Annmarie Hylton-Schaub, Head Marketing Strategist and Content Developer at Project Good Work, a boutique marketing group focused on helping individuals who want to launch social impact projects, charities, and change-making initiatives. The marketing group works to develop branding, marketing strategy, and content to connect clients with the people who believe what they believe so that their project and business can thrive.

If you have a passion for an unserved community, a social justice problem, or want to change minds, contact Project Good Work at ProjectGood.Work to start your project of change today.

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Annmarie Hylton-Schaub

Marketing Strategist and Content Developer focused on organizations and people leading the changing social landscape. More at https://www.projectgood.work/blog