Plastic-based products have become popular as an easy-to-use product that meets many needs in day- to-day human life. Although “plastic” is a valuable resource, its use and disposal have led to a number of environmental, health and social problems.Research that has been conducted over the years by ecologists, medical and health experts, and environmental organizations in the modern world has shown that there is an unbearable amount of plastic and polythene waste piled up or scattered on Earth. Researchers expressed that if plastic waste continues to be released into the environment as it does today, the artificial waste, which takes hundreds of years to decompose, could be deposited on Earth, making adverse effects on ecosystems, biodiversity and ultimately, the well-being of all of us.
Accordingly, the plastic waste discarded by the global community, which exists in wetland ecosystems such as rivers, streams, lakes, natural reservoirs, watersheds as well as coastal and marine ecosystems, is detrimental to human life as well as all living beings. Marine pollution due to plastic disposal has become a major topic under the modern environmental conservation discourse. It has become such a key topic that the release of chemicals into the oceans, improper human activities and the large scale disposal of plastic waste into the oceans have become a major environmental disaster today. In some marine ecosystems, miles of floating plastic mountains have formed, and in some other areas, deep-sea plastic mountains have formed.Destruction of coral reefs and biodiversity is a direct outcome of this calamity. Thus, some areas at risk of becoming dead seas due to plastic mountains in the oceans. This urges for maritime conservation initiatives at the global level to conserve marine ecosystems.
Plastic/polythene waste and environmental and health impacts
According to the data available, the amount of solid waste generated in Sri Lanka per day is approximately 8500 metric tons, of which 600 metric tons is plastic and polythene waste. The problem of solid waste generation exceeding the capacity of local government authorities has become a major obstacle to waste management. One of the most pressing problems in Sri Lanka is the illegal disposal of waste by the general public and business owners at their will, regardless of formal methods. Only 20% of the discarded PET plastic bottles are subjected to recycling in Sri Lanka,while the remaining 80% is left unattended in the environment. According to a recent study, nearly two million sachets are released into the environment in Sri Lanka every day. Similarly, close to 6 million face masks used as a protective gear against Covid-19 are added to the environment daily polluting surrounding environment, rivers, streams, lakes as well as other ecosystems. This irregular discharge causes the drainage system clogged, causing flooding even during a light rainfall. Blockage in drains have become fertile breeding grounds for the spread of dengue mosquitoes. The government has to spend a lot of money annually for combating diseases such as dengue as well as and repairing drain systems. Yet, open burning of plastics and polythene is still taking place today. It is a health problem. According to the data from a study conducted in the Western Province, 68% of people in rural areas and 50% of people from urban areas burn plastics in open grounds. Though plastic should be burnt at a temperature of 1200-1400 degrees Celsius, the household burning takes place at a much lower temperature, causing adverse impact on health. Burning plastic releases a number of noxious gases and chemicals to the atmosphere, for example, sulphur dioxide, hydrochloric acid, heavy metals, dioxins and furans and persistent organic pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls and carbon particles. Inhalation of such toxic fumes could engender non-communicable diseases. According to reports by health experts, noxious gases resulting from incineration of plastics could increase the risk of heart attacks, respiratory disease such as asthma and emphysema, rashes, nausea, headaches and weakening of the nerve system.
Disposable electronic waste too is a type of solid waste that has a detrimental impact on the environment. Televisions, refrigerators, elevators, computers as well as various electronic appliances used in kitchen are discarded to the environment without disposing properly. Small plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters have been identified as microplastics can have an adverse impact on human health. These include under the category of small plastic particles used in cosmetic products, toothpaste and industrial products and small pieces of plastics that degrade into smaller and smaller particles due to geographical impact and high temperature. Microplastics can enter our body consciously or unconsciously. Therefore, it needs extreme caution when using the products such as cosmetic and toothpaste. The use of processed, packaged foods has increased in the current market operations. Due to healthcare concerns and the need for preservation, food packaging is becoming more and more attractive. This packaging is made using single-use plastics containing different types of paints and dyes. These packaging materials are non- recyclable and are often dumped into the environment. We must understand the danger.
Improper disposal of polythene adversely affect diversity of marine wildlife. Lives of nearly 700 species of animals including seabirds, whales, turtles and other mammals are endangered by plastic debris. A study reveals that plastic has been found in the bodies of 59% of seabirds, including pelicans and albatrosses and 100% of turtles. Microplastics are found in the bodies of 25% of sea fish available in the market.
In this way, there are adverse impacts due to the improper use and irregular disposal of plastics. It is practically impossible to completely eliminate ‘plastic’ from people’s life in the modern society as plastics have contributed to meeting a large number of essential human needs. Therefore, it is our obligation to properly dispose of plastics after use.
Approaches to plastic management
According to the National Environmental Act, the importation, production, sale and use of several single-use plastic products have been banned with effect from 01st September 2017.Accordingly products manufactured from banned plastics such as shopping bags, grocery bags, lunch sheets, food packing boxes, plates and cups manufactured have been prohibited from being used. Further, decorations from plastics for social, cultural and political events have been banned.It is pertinent to note that that there has been a significant control in the use of polythene for open decorations as a results of these bans. Taking a step forward towards the prohibition of plastics, several other single-use polythene products have been banned with effect from 31 March 2021. Accordingly, the use of polyethylene, terephthalate (PET) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) material for packing agrochemicals. Sachets having less than or equal to a net volume of 20ml/ net weight of 20g for any process, trade or industry, except for packing food and medicines, was prohibited. Inflatable toys except balloons, balls, water floating/pool toys and water sports gear were banned under these regulations. The use of cotton buds with plastic stems except plastic cotton buds used for medical/clinical treatment too was prohibited. With the imposition of these bans, several exceptions have been made for some items which are used for essential purposes for which immediate alternatives cannot be made. It should also be noted here that there is a potential to ban those products with the introduction of alternatives from eco-friendly manufacturers.
There is an internationally recognized coding system to facilitate the proper use of plastic-based products and the recycling process. There are different types of plastics and the products that are used to produce each type are unique. From the code indicated in the product, the type of plastic used for manufacturing the particular product can be identified, making it easier to use for the intended purpose and recycling. Accordingly, indicating the code on plastic products is a mandatory legal requirement. In taking measures for optimizing the use of plastics, it is very important for the general public to be aware of these codes.
In harmony with the environmental policy of the government, the Ministry of Environment and the Central Environmental Authority, in collaboration with a number of other institutions have formulated a Plastic Management Plan for the decade 2020-2030, which guide general public to use of plastic and polythene-based products prudently,offer technical know how to local government authorities for regularizing the disposal process and conduct educational programmes for the public throughout the Island. Further, considering public safety more and more single-use polythene products will be banned from time to time.
So far, various measures have been taken by nearly 130 countries around the world for the control of plastics. In addition to implementation of bans, strict tax systems have been put in place. Improper use and post-use of plastics and rapid daily generation of plastic waste faster than the rate of waste disposal management have become a serious problem. Every country has adopting measures to manage the problem by introducing proper disposal methods, popularizing the 3R concept, enhancing the understanding of general masses through environmental education. The concept of ‘3R’ refers to reduce, reuse and recycle of plastic waste. It is very important to train people to adopt for those practical approaches. With the legal framework put in place by the Central Environmental Authority, raids are conducted continuously in search of banned polythene products. Similarly, educational programmes based on the 3R concept are being conducted for various target groups. Print and electronic media too is used for this purpose and audio and video programmes are produced and employed, making educational programmes a success. CEA appreciates the support extended by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Sciences (Cefas) in United Kindom to raise public awareness using mass media on the control of plastics and proper use.
At present, the Central Environmental Authority has worked people-centered programmes together with private sector colloberation to collect and recycle PET bottles in an environment friendly manner.“Surakimu Ganga” riverine ecosystem restoration programme has been launched under the environmental policy of the present government. The key objective of the programme is to clean 103 rivers, ensuring water safety and conserve ecosystems. It should also be recalled that water safety and conservation of ecosystems is one of the sustainable development goals of the United Nations that we should achieve. “Surakimu Ganga” programme controls the release of hazardous chemicals and solid waste to waterways. Since the dumping of plastics and polythene to rivers is prevented under this programme, the detrimental impact on ecosystems due to plastic waste will be minimized. As a result, rivers will become polythene free zones and the amount of plastic and polythene waste flowing into rivers and to the sea will become minimal, contributing to the conservation of marine ecosystems.
Responsibility of the people
People becoming thoroughly aware of environmental, health and social issues associated with the use of plastics and related products is very important to manage the problem. People need to adapt to the eco-friendly uses and practices. Eco-firendly use means the optimal use and proper disposal. Ideal would be the situation where no polythene products are used. However, there is a great potential to minimize the use of polythene products and reuse items. In this way, the amount of polythene products released to environment daily is greatly reduced. It is our responsibility to recycle plastic and polythene that needs to be discarded after reuse. Recycling process enables the use of waste as a resource while controlling the release of waste to the environment. It is a regulation of the Consumer Affairs Authority that suitable packing should be given free of charge upon the purchase of goods from a shop or a market. Therefore, it has become a habit to provide separate packing material for each and every item. As consumers, we can refuse unnecessary packing by carrying a suitable bag made of a biodegradable material. Consumers, who irrationally take packing home from the shops can pile up polythene bags in their homes, discard them improperly and cause health and environmental issues by burning them. We should not allow unwanted polythene packaging to be piled up in our homes and burn polythene. People should extend their unrestrained support to polythene control programmes initiated by the government in order to secure environmental wellbeing as well as our health. It is wished to be stated that it is the responsibility and duty of environmental friendly, responsive citizens to understand the problems caused by plastics and polythene and to make proper use of it and to make proper disposal.
Central Environmental Authority