Climate Change, Opinions

Plastic: Digesting Indigestible

Article by:                                   M. Faizan Khurram University of Agriculture, Faisalabad

Earth digests everything except plastic. It remains in the soil approximately for a millennium. Once it comes out of factory or shop, somehow, it becomes a permanent fracture to earth. It tore/breaks into micro size and is consumed by living organisms and disturbs food chain.

Types of Plastics

The invention of Bakelite brought a revolution in materials by introducing synthetic resins in 1907. Different types of plastics are as follows;

  • Degrade-able Plastic.

These types degrade in presence of oxygen and requires considerably long period of about 500-1000 years to break plastics into biomass, water and CO2

  • Bio-Degrade-able Plastics

Plastics which are degraded by naturally occurring microbes like bacteria, fungi etc. in soil and environment.

Drop a ketchup bottle on the floor you can see its degradability, no doubt it will be slow as you think. Now drop the same bottle in a landfill, how much time, do you think, it would take to decompose? It will take many years to do so because it contains PEP (Polyethylene tetra phthalate) a petroleum based material. When decomposer would find any such thing, they just change their direction away from it.

It is the need of hour to not only highlight the major problem of Pakistan but also suggest solution and take part to protect our land from plastic bags pollution. We can see in all around us, even on carts and markets, that everyone who buys anything, is gifted with these rubbish bags. A lot of us do not know about the drastic effects of one plastic bag because once it leaves the shop, it will become a part of our headache, as you would die soon but it will last longer for as much as 400-500 years.

Problems:

1.  Food Chain Disturbance

Plastic pollutes and disturbs food chain of animals, plants and ours as well. As a Marine Biologist Andrew Watts said that they had found many marine crabs and marine worms consuming micro/tiny particles of PEP by fault and these particles deposited in their body. Now the bird which feeds on it will found less protein and more plastic, residues which will pass through birds to the predators in food chain and finally there will be human health hazards. Most dangerous in plastic is the use of different types of chemicals in its manufacturing i.e. Polychlorinated biphenyls and pesticide (DDT). Plastic pollution first time noted in late 1960s and early 1970s in the oceans.

Triggerfish caught near the surface in North Atlantic subtropical gyre, Scientists found 47 pieces of plastic in its stomach.

According to the Trade Association Plastic Europe, the production of plastics in 1950s was 1.5 million tonnes which has increased up to 275 million tonnes in 2010, about which 4 to 12 million tonnes is directly thrown into oceans annually by countries with ocean costlines.

 

2. Land Fill 

One of the major issue is the landfill because these plastics only degrade when oxygen and light is available, but herein Pakistan usually easy method to remove the trash from area is to burn it or dump into land which is totally polluting and decreasing our agricultural land as a slow poison. Degradable plastic when thrown into a hole in the ground and break down, as there is no oxygen, the carbon turns into methane which is a greenhouse gas.

 3. Human Health issues

Pollution of environment by leaching of chemicals of plastic is a major and growing area of concern. Phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) used in plastic related material have been proven dangerous to health and disrupt the endocrine system. Phthalates act against male hormones so known as anti-androgen, BPA mimics the female hormone oestrogen and PBDE disrupts thyroid hormones and most susceptible to these chemicals are children and female of reproductive age.

  • World Scenario

Over 300 million tonnes plastic is produce annually in the globe, in just USA about 4.6% or can say 331 million barrels of petroleum is used in plastic manufacturing.

  • Pakistan Scenario.

Pakistan-Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) conducted a study which showed that in the early 90s as many as 12 billion plastic bags per anum were produced in Pakistan. By the years 2007-08, the production went more than 55 billion per year. In addition, the projected projection of plastic bags by 2014-15 stood at 112 billion per year. Today 200,000 people directly and 600,000 indirectly involved in the production of plastic bags in more than 8,000 manufacturing units spread across the country,

Mostly in Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar.

Some interesting facts about Plastic.

According to Nicole D’Alessandro:

  • Within last 10 years we have produced as more plastic than we produced it in last century.
  • Each year enough plastic is wasted to circle the earth 4 times
  • Only five percent of plastic is recovered/recycled out of total production.
  • One million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually due to the damping of plastic in ocean.
  • Plastic chemicals can be absorbed by human body as 93% of Americans age six or older Test positive for BPA (a chemical in plastic).
  • The carbon footprint of plastic is of 6kg CO2 per kg of plastic.
  • About 6% of World oil is consumed in plastic production per anum.
  • In 2050, the Ocean will have more plastic than fishes by weight.

Biotechnology Role

*The Wax Worm, a caterpillar used for fishing bait and beehives eating have been found very effective eater of plastic bags of polyethylene, not only decomposes it but also digest it because when its residues were scanned scientists found ethylene glycol. But to use it in landfills is not possible because it need oxygen to work and to survive. But now we can check that what kind of enzyme it has which results plastic degradation. After this finding, we will be free from these worms, instead, we will apply enzymes and degrade the Plastic into harmless product within a few days.

*The increasing plastic wastage has led some nine Pakistani and Chinese investigators to discover novel and secure means to degrade it.

In the research, labelled Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Aspergillus tubingensis, academics from Isloo have claimed to find out a fungus that survives on plastic in trashes.

According to their findings, the fungus called Aspergillus Tubingensis can collapse non-biodegradable plastic within weeks by squirting enzymes that disintegrates individual molecules.

 Conclusions

Main factors behind this effort is to put forth modern techniques in order to get rid of to this pollution as we see in all cities, oh sorry! I mean, big cities such as Karachi, Lahore. We have to modernize our thoughts according to World and demand of time. Biotechnology is very much useful and can be practical in Pakistan if Government take it seriously, because this field is totally environment friendly and still we need to take measures to clean our cities from such long lasting pollutants existing in our land. We have to stop or minimize the usage of plastic bags by adopting our past when we all used to paper bags or cloth bags. Another solution can be possible is to burry these in the landfills. Why should not we burry them under constructing roads? as we see the calibre of roads in backward areas, definitely we can bury plastics under the road in a layer between soil layers.

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