The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has always demonstrated a penchant to take up social issues, and, to name just two, a few years into his job, he took up the cause of “Swatch Bharat”. The E-toilet scattered over the length and breadth of the country is testimony to this movement. A leading Bollywood actor even made a box office hit, titled “ Ek Toilet Ke Prem Katha”. Now, Modi has taken up the cause against use of “single use plastics”. He made a call to shun single-use plastic during his Independence Day address, which was reiterated at the 14th Conference of Parties (COP14) of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. But, this could well fail, given the magnitude of the problem, and the only solution will be when individuals, that is, plastic wrapper users, scientists and entrepreneurs join hands. At the individual level, it is still the wife walking or driving up to the market, bare handed, except for the purse, collect all the groceries, fruits, and what have you, in huge single use plastic bags, bring them home, empty the containers, not knowing what to do with the huge bags, which are now empty. She either makes a ball out of it and throws in the garbage bin, which now has a destination of a mountain of discarded plastic material somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Previously, in April 2011, former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit had imposed a blanket ban on the manufacture, sale, storage and use of plastic bags but it soon withered away. In March 2016, the Union Government mooted the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, to ensure that organizers of public functions (rallies, weddings etc.,) remove all plastic litter at the venue at the end of the function. Sadly, none knew about it.
Close to 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste is generated in India, on a daily basis. And no reliable statistics exists about how much is collected and recycled. Quite likely, Indians simply dump a lot in our rivers, wherever they are. A small fraction of the plastic waste is used in laying out stronger roads.
Nearly 40 per cent of the plastic produced every year are single-use items like carry bags and food wrappers which consumers use for a couple of hours, as stated above, but, end up in the environment as garbage in garbage dumps. These can remain in the environment for a long time until disposed off by other means, rarely by incineration. The additives added in plastic manufacture to obtain greater tenacity and durability make its life span longer. The UN Environment Program estimates that only nine per cent of all plastic waste is recycled; 12 per cent incinerated and 79 per cent dumped in landfills or the natural environment. Worldwide, plastic pollution has made its way into the oceans, where it destroys marine life and coral reefs. Since the forties, the amount of microscopic plastics in ocean sediments has doubled every fifteen years. A decade ago, plastic pollution touched almost 40 particles per 10cm x 10cm patch of the ocean bed. On Henderson Island, an uninhabited atoll halfway between Chile and New Zealand, scientists found plastic items from Russia, the US, Europe, South America, Japan and China, carried by the South Pacific gyre, a circular ocean current.
The global warming of oceans coupled with marine contamination of plastics pose one of the greatest environmental threats as reported by this author in his book launched on September 23 in New York, during the global summit on global warming organised by Mr Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary General(Ref: Combating Global Warming: The Role of Crop Wild Relatives For Food Security, Springer Climate). Annually, nearly 12.7 million kg of plastic enters the oceans and this could double in the next decade, according to Ocean Conservancy. By the middle of 21st century, almost every seabird on the planet will have plastic in its stomach. Oceans will have more plastic than fish, according to a World Economic Forum report. Plastic nano-particles ingested by marine animals are entering the food chain, affecting fish fertility and food security of coastal populations, eventually, this will also adversely affect global populations who use fish as an important source of protein. On an average, human beings consume at least 50,000 micro-plastic particles every year, through food and water. The health impact of this intake has not yet been scientifically/medically assessed but micro-plastics can release toxins that may penetrate body tissues and cause cancer and other afflictions.
What India needs urgently are solutions that the plastic menace be contained before it engulfs the country and its citizens turning out to be not just an environmental hazard, but, an uncontrollable health hazard. Generating waste-to-electricity, the technology for which exists in countries like Singapore, where no waste goes to the landfills or oceans, is one such very promising technology. Strangely, Indian entrepreneurs have not entered this arena, which could be very lucrative. With monetary incentives and support, the Government of India could consider this area as promising and support for start-up entrepreneurs with passion. Experts in the area could be hired to assist them. Perhaps, the Government could also consider asking medium enterprises to enter this field and hire experts to mentor this sunrise industry.
Another very promising area is from the field of biology. In April 2017, Spanish scientist Federica Bertocchini accidentally discovered that wax worms eat plastic. Worms can degrade polythene, perhaps, one of the toughest materials to decompose and The University of Cambridge in Britain, promptly initiated a study with remarkable results. Waxworms (Galleria mellonella) are caterpillars, commonly used as fishing bait and are readily available. They feed on bee’s wax and often attack beehives; possibly they find plastic similar to beeswax; 100 wax worms can biodegrade 92 milligrams of polyethylene, used most in manufacturing shopping plastic bags and food packaging, in 12 hours.
Another very promising area is single enzymes responsible for the chemical process, described above, which, if reproduced largescale, could solve the world’s plastic problem. Indian scientists are hardly seen involved in this area of research. Admittedly, thousands of manufacturing units and lakhs of jobs are at stake, which is why a total ban is nearly impossible. The Government of India will be well advised to examine the question if the petrochemical-based shopping bags, which have entered the market in recent years and take the same time to degrade as plastic, should be allowed to aggravate the waste disposal crisis. Alternatives like biodegradable hemp-based or bamboo-based plastic should be promoted. Ideally, the best solution is to promote cloth bags, if not, paper ones. Parallel to the menace of poly bags, is the widespread proliferation of bottled water, the bottle being made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). A bacteria (Ideonella sakainesis 201-F6) that ate polyethylene terephthalate (PET), as found out by Japanese scientists, holds much promise in the PET menace. Laboratory tests showed that Ideonella sakainesis uses two enzymes to break down the molecular bonds of PET plastic and consider it as a food source. The scientists believe that this happened because the bacteria were put in a place with only one food source and adapted to consume it, indeed, a remarkable example demonstrating how Nature works.
In this connection, it is very heartening to note that, recently Fionn Ferreira, an Irish teenager, was awarded the prestigious “GOOGLE SCIENCE AWARD” valued US $ 50000 (almost a quarter of the shared Nobel Award) with supportive funding for a very promising invention to remove micro-plastics from water. Ferreira was kayaking when he saw a rock covered in oil from a recent spill, which had attracted tiny pieces of plastic. Employing ferro-fluid (a magnetic, oil-based liquid invented by NASA in 1963), Ferreira made an acceptable and benign (environment-friendly) version with recycled vegetable oil and magnetite powder and removed 88 per cent of the micro-plastics in his test samples. This could eventually be used at wastewater treatment plants to filter micro-plastics before the water is released into rivers or oceans.
Nearer home, in the Greater Noida wetlands, scientists at the Shiv Nadar University discovered two strains of plastic-eating bacteria, namely, Exiguobacterium sibiricum DR 11 and Exiguobacterium undae DR 14, which can decompose polystyrene, a key ingredient in the manufacture of single-use plastics. Both strains used polystyrene as a source of carbon, as food, and created biofilms, which paved the way for its natural degradation. It would, indeed, be very exciting if our scientists succeed in growing such bacterial strains to industrial proportions, which will enable small or medium enterprises help tap the huge potential in degrading plastic waste on a district-wise basis. Such investments neither ask for huge space nor mammoth investments. They simply will succeed as very imaginative start- ups in India, which is the call of the hour.
(The author was formerly Professor National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium and can be contacted at [email protected] )