In the modern world, plastic-based products have become indispensable to people’s day-today life.
Plastic products are popular due to their light-weight, durability, low cost of transportation, resistance to water, extreme versatility and ability to be tailed to meet specific needs, resistance to rough use, as well as recommendation of plastic containers with internationally accepted classification codes for packaging of food and other goods.
Plastics were invented as a new product by Herman, German chemist, and especially plastics as a light-weight material that can conveniently be used in space exploration, is widely used today for a variety of purposes including food packaging, industries, trade, agriculture, construction and electronics.
Although plastic products facilitate the needs in complex modern society, the haphazard and unhygienic disposal of used plastic to the environment without adapting proper environment-friendly measures have caused immense damage to ecosystems of the earth.
Plastic and polythene products can take 500-1000 years to decompose, which has become a tragedy for the well-being of the earth.
Due to the irregular disposal of plastic products ever since the commencement of their production up to now, they have become scattered and piled up throughout the planet earth.
Generally, a plastic package takes up to 400 years, a plastic bottle up to 450 years, a plastic cup up to 500 years, a plastic toothbrush 500 years, a plastic straw up to 20 years, a plastic travelling bag up to 20 years, a coffee cup up to 30 years, a fishing net up to 40 years and a nylon cloth up to 30-40 years to decompose.
That is due to the nature of composition of plastic. We all should understand that the existence of such artificial materials for such long periods on ecosystems of the planet without decay cause detrimental environmental effects.
Environmental, health and social issues
Rivers and other water bodies and wetland ecosystems as well as catchment areas have experienced environmental degradation due to cast off plastics. As tones of plastic flow into oceans, marine ecosystems are awash with plastic waste causing irreversible pollution in littoral ecosystems. The quality of the soil has decreased as plastic waste deposited on planet takes ages to decompose. Plastic has also destroyed the aesthetic value of littoral and other ecosystems. Clogging of drains and culvert due to plastic waste gives rise to flood situations in urban areas during rainy seasons. Toxic gases emitted by burning plastic results in air pollution and causes cancer and respiratory diseases. Water gathered in indiscriminately discarded plastic containers becomes breeding grounds for vectors contributing to the spread of diseases such as dengue and filariasis. Many species of wildlife that feed on waste in the open dumping grounds are endangered by eating polythene, and thereby their lives are threatened today. Nearly 700 species of animals around the world, including seabirds, whales, turtles and other mammals, are at risk from plastic waste. A research team of California University, America has estimated that plastic waste released to the natural environment would rise up to 12 trillion tons by the year 2050, if plastic waste continued to be dumped without proper management. However, researchers around the world have presented statistics in a variety of ways, but rather than a statistical debate, it is agreed that improper plastic disposal mentods have caused serious environmental damage to Earth’s ecosystems.
Improper use of plastic and aggravation of waste management problem
According to the available data, the United States of America has the highest per capita polythene consumption which amounts to 70 kilograms. In Japan, it amounts to 46 kilograms, in China 40 kilograms, in India 10 kilograms and in Sri Lanka it amounts to 7 kilograms and these numbers are steadily on the increase. A salient feature in countries with the highest per-capita polythene consumption is that the minimal use of lunch sheets, shopping bags and grocery bags. Studies have shown that approximately 20 million shopping bags are used daily in Sri Lanka. At that rate, about 5.5 billion shopping bags are added to the environment each year. If this happens over the years, formation of plastic and polythene mountains is unavoidable.
By year 2016, Sri Lanka had imported half a million tons of plastic and polythene 70% of this amount had been used locally and 30% had been exported in various forms. Nearly 40% of locally used plastic and polythene had been subject to the recycling process and the remaining 30% had been directly released into the environment. According to the available data, the amount of waste generated daily in Sri Lanka is approximately 8500 metric tons. Of this, plastic/ polythene waste makes up 600 metric tons. It has also been estimated that plastic waste constitutes 10% of all urban solid waste.
The experts in the field were critical of the disclosure made by an international environmental study group that Sri Lanka was in fifth place amongst countries that haphazardly discard plastic waste polluting ecosystems including the marine environment. However, even a casual observation would prove that huge amounts of castoff plastic products are released to the environment daily. According to the data of the United Nations Environment Programme, 1.4 trillion pieces of plastics and polythene have been added to the Indian Ocean by countries lying close to the Indian Ocean.
Controlling of plastic products by various countries
Nearly 130 countries have adopted diverse strategies and methods to control single-use plastic products which, amongst plastic based products have generated a slew of environmental, health and social concerns.
Methods to control plastics
With effect from 1st September 2017,importation, production, sale and use of several single-use plastic products have been totally banned. Accordingly, the production, sale and use of food packaging boxes, plates, cups, spoons etc made of expanded polystyrene were banned. The manufacture, sale and use of shopping bags for local use from polythene less than 20 micron thickness too have been outlawed. Grocery bags are also banned, as theproduction, sale or use of high-density polythene products for domestic use is prohibited.
The production, sale the use of lunch sheets using polythene as a raw material for local use is banned. Products made from high density polyethylene (HDPE) such as grocery bags, shopping bags, lunch sheets and polystyrene food packaging are banned.
Instead of such illegal products, we should start using bags and wrappers manufactured using environmental-friendly materials. The production of environmental-friendly products required for consumers is not a task of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA). The role of the CEA is to regulate, maintain and control the quality of the environment. Continuing the ban on plastic and polythene, the CEA has taken steps to ban several other single-use polythene products from 31st March 2021. Accordingly, the use of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) material for packing agrochemicals used in any process, trade or industry was banned.
Sachets having less than or equal to a net volume of 20ml/ net weight of 20g too are prohibited except for packing food and medicines. Inflatable toys except balloons, balls, water floating/pool toys and water sports gear are banned under these regulations.
The use of cotton buds with plastic stems except plastic cotton buds used for medical/clinical treatment too are prohibited. Considering the interest of environment protection, a number of single-use plastic products will be banned in the future.
With this ban imposed,the environmental damage caused through the addition of single-use plastic products to the environment resulting from improper disposal will be curtailed. The National Craft Council and a number of private sector institutions have come forward to produce alternatives to these banned products.
For the convenience of recycling all castoff plastic products, the indication of international coding that has been introduced to facilitate for easier identification of polythene products manufactured from different types of polythene too was made mandatory.
Public awareness and raids
Since the enforceing of polythene ban in 2017, to date, legal action has been constituted against manufacturers who illegally produced and marketed those banned products.
Steps will be taken in future as well to conduct these raids islandwide to ensure environment-friendly plastic products are available in the market.
Although a legal background for the control of plastic/polythene products has been set up, it will only become meaningful through the greater public participation and awareness.
The CEA implements educational programmes for divergent target groups including schoolchildren using print and electronic media, ensuring the effectiveness.
It is the binding obligation of a plastic and polythene manufacturer to take necessary action to recycle and properly dispose of any item after use. This system is effectively implemented in developed countries. Accordingly, action is being taken to form the background for the implementation of such a system in Sri Lanka and to amend the National Environmental Act to provide increase of fines and arrest violators of environmental regulations.
‘Surakimu Ganga’ national environmental drive
‘Surakimu Ganga’ ecosystem restoration programme is implemented under the sustainable environmental management which is one of the key policies of the ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ policy framework of the incumbent government. This programme is aimed at providing clean drinking water to the people through conservation of rivers, protection of environmental resources and sustainably securing socio-economic benefits.
Under this programme, rivers that have been eroded due to human activities will be rehabilitated by strictly controlling the discharge of various chemicals and solid waste into the rivers and regulating sand mining and mineral resources.
measures will be taken to prevent erosion of river banks and illegal constructions along river banks, halt seawater intrusion and check the spread of invasive plant species.
At present, nearly 50 projects are being implemented for the conservation of rivers and the process of river conservation is being carried out through project activities, seeking solutions to the existing enfironmentalproblems.
The end destination of plastic waste, especially waste washed away by the river system is estuaries, beaches and oceans. Tons of such plastic waste has made sever impacts on marine ecosystems. As the dumping of solid waste including polythene and plastics is prevented by ‘Surakimu Ganga’ national environmental drive, the pollution of estuaries, coasts and marine systems too will be prevented.
The active participation of people is essential for the success of the said environmental conservation activities. In line with the environmental policy that works within the policy framework of the present government, a plastics and polythene management plan has been formulated for the decade of 2020-2030 under the patronage of the Minister of Environment Mahinda Amaraweera and with the intervention of the Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Dr. Anil Jasinghe and with the assistance of the Chairman of CEA, S. Amarasinghe.
This plan is now at the operational level under which action will be pursued to empower the public and prevent improper disposal of plastics and polythene by educating society for the optimum use, thereby protecting our own ecosystems and minimizing the contribution of Sri Lanka to the pollution of marine ecosystems.
The writer is Director General, Central Environmental Authority