What do I do about plastics? - Even Jerks Can Save the World - India Renewable Energy Consulting – Solar, Biomass, Wind, Cleantech
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Plastic is everywhere. A good number of disposable plastic items pollute our land and water, and we all wish to something about this.

But it is not easy. Because plastics are damned useful things.

But something needs to be done about this, no?

While you will hear numerous ideas of how to decrease plastic pollution, a good many of them are not practical.

For instance, I have heard so many idealistic suggestions on completely eliminating plastic from our life. I mean, it will not be easy for us to avoid plastic – try it for a day, and you will agree with me. But aren’t there alternatives we can use? For some applications, yes, but for many applications, there are few if any non-polluting materials available as alternatives.

Let’s get practical.

So, what indeed are the practical ways to decrease plastic pollution?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Segregation & Recycling – We need a good system to segregate waste so that a good portion of the plastic waste is brought back into circulation through recycling, instead of polluting land or marine environments.
    Reduce & Reuse – While eliminating plastic from our lives is not possible (not at least in the short run), what is possible is to eliminate a few unnecessary uses of plastic, and reusing plastic items that can indeed be reused. Bring your own bag, reusing plastic bags and covers, saying no to an extra plastic cover if it is handed to you at retail outlets…
  • Selective Elimination – While not easy, governments and municipalities should consider how to reduce the amount of very thin plastic films (standalone or in the form of laminates) used, as these are the ones that are very difficult to collect/segregate and to recycle. Talk about mulch films etc; talk also about specific occasions such as parties when plastics can create most harm and thus trying to eliminate plastics in these alone can be of great use; also in products such as diapers and in sanitary napkins
  • Substitute select products / applications with easy, eco-friendly alternatives – A simple example of this is the use of metal or ceramic cups, instead of plastic cups, for coffee and other hot/cold beverages.
  • Less landfill and more of plastics to value – if the plastic has to finally go somewhere, let it not be to the landfill, where it lies forever as a pollutant; let it instead reach the incineration chamber where it can be burnt to generate power. This way, we are getting rid of the plastic and its pollution, and generating something useful at the same time.
  • Use of Biodegradable Plastics – It is possible that in the near future, some of the thin film disposable plastics used are replaced by biodegradable plastics, plastics that will degrade within a few months in natural or industrial composting environments. Mention that this might not be a very practical way for the time being though

I feel the above methods are practical, and most of them can be implemented either by individuals, communities or municipalities in the short term, without significantly affecting our current way of life.

How did we live before plastics were invented?

It was not long back that a person asked me at a conference: How did we live before plastics? Or perhaps the person meant “How could we have lived before plastics?”.

Either way, I liked the question.

One, because it is a question that few people actually think of. Two, because it is such a challenging question to answer!

Surely, humans lived on this planet before plastics were invented? They ought to have – because the first synthetic plastics came to market only around 1910. The first ever man-made plastic (from cellulose) was invented only in the 1860s. Humans have been around for tens of thousands of years technically, the species homo sapiens has been around for at least 200,000 years.

OK, I have made my point – we have been around for far longer than have been plastics. How did we live without them? Understanding this aspect will perhaps give us insights on how we could live with less plastics in future too?

Before I go on, I should make this distinction: This post is not about all plastics. For instance, it is not about engineering plastics that we find in our cars and computers – these plastics serve a different purpose, and result far less, if any, pollution in our land and oceans.

Specifically, the question I am posing is: How did we live without using the disposable plastic items that we today use in almost all walks of life?

Now, let me put on my thinking cap and try out my best answer.

How indeed did we live before plastics were invented?

We Used Alternatives

We used stuff that just satisfied our need instead of catering to our greed. Interestingly, nature has provided a lot many earth-friendly materials to lead a reasonably comfortable life with these materials alone:

  • We used paper for packaging things that did not require plastic in the first place
  • We used cloth bags and other civilized things for carrying most things around
  • Where fluid transportation was involved, we used metal containers.
  • A whole lot of cooking items and cutlery (plates, cups, forks and spoons and knives…) were also made of metal or other non plastic items such as glass, paper or even more natural things – for instance, where I live (South India), we still use banana leaves as our “plates” during many festivals and religious functions, and even at times, at weddings.
  • In order to protect items from being affected by moisture, we usually carried them or stored them in metal containers.

We Led a Different Lifestyle

Our lifestyles evolve based on the environment and constraints. If we had no plastics, we led a lifestyle that simply did not require plastics!

  • Most food was home cooked, so the concept of take-aways and the consequent need for plastic was not there.
  • Many of the cleaning items (including personal cleaning items such as nappies for kids), were made from paper or cloth, and the cloth items were washed and reused.
  • We did not have mobile phones (leave alone smartphones), so we needed that much less plastic for the phones themselves and for their covers.
  • We Were More Disciplined in Our Habits
  • When we have to make-do with less, we become disciplined. When we had no plastic, we had habits that were by default eco-friendly – be it:
    • Carrying our own bags for shopping
    • Reusing things instead of dumping them after every use
    • Keeping things safe from moisture instead of needing material to protect them from moisture

What I have provided above is only a sampling, but I guess if you think along these lines, you will be able to come up with a lot many more examples of how humans lived without in the pre-plastic era!

Of course, without plastic we could not do a whole lot of things more comfortably (carrying water in metal containers would have been a lot heavier for instance), but let’s just say that we just about managed to lead a decent, civilized life without plastics.

The bigger question of course is – Will we be able to live a life anymore without plastics?

What are your thoughts?

By the way, in my village, even today, folks live with very little plastic. A good amount of stuff gets packaged in paper; you will find hardly any plastic water bottles – water is stored and served mostly in metal containers. But then, their lifestyles are different – very different – from those of the urban folks.

Whether the lifestyles of these rural folk are better than those of the urban creatures like us is however a question whose answer really depends on who it is asked to!

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