The Plastic Problem

Published: July 22, 2016 - 16:46

Hardnews Bureau Delhi 

Plastics are a serious problem, so much so, the animated group ‘the Gorillaz’, 2010 environmental album was titled ‘Plastic Beach’, set in a world where everything is made of plastic – an attempt to raise awareness of the serious problem that the material poses to the future of the planet. 

It is the most commonly used material in the world found in pens, computers, household products and the toys that children play with. Nearly 56 lakh tonnes of plastic are generated in India, according to a recent report by ToxicsLink, a New Delhi-based environment NGO, released a report titled ‘WEEE Plastic and Brominated Flame Retardants: A report on WEEE plastic recycling’. Only 60% of these plastics are efficiently recycled, and forty percent are not which leads to the situation where these non-recyclable materials are “…Increasingly found in the environment due to inappropriate disposal and low to non-existent biodegradability. Plastic waste can be found in oceans, rivers, landfills, and roadsides, etc. which causes pollution and contamination and poses risks to human health and the environment.” 

Moreover, as companies and manufacturers attempt to make these plastics more durable, more toxic and hazardous materials and heavy metals are added to them. One of the most dangerous flame retardants used is Brominated Flame Retardants. In a conversation with Satish Sinha, Associate Director of ToxicsLink we understand the larger issue associated with BFRs. 


What is the most common household items in which these plastics are found? 

Brominated Flame Retardants are added to the electronic plastics mainly such as the casings of computers, televisions and other household items such as kitchen appliances. The recycled plastic is used to make toys like Rubik's cubes, and local made ‘Lego’ kind of toys.  

Why is there no method of sifting these hazardous plastics from non-hazardous plastics? 

There are techniques to separate the hazardous plastic from the clean stream - like salt water separation. But these are not used by all recyclers owing to lack of knowledge, lack of demand for separated plastic and at times lack of feasibility due to dispersed quantities.

What are the long-term impact to the environment and health?

 As mentioned, some of the BFRs are used in electronic or WEEE plastic are toxic and are known to bioaccumulate and biomagnify, meaning that they build up in the body.

Researchers have found Poly Brominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDEs), or toxic flame retardants, in wildlife, our homes, food, and even our bodies. They have been detected in blood, breast milk, and body fat.

We are exposed to PBDEs through house dust, indoor air, direct contact with consumer products, and food.  These toxic flame retardants do not fully bind to the products they are used in so they escape into the air in our homes and workplaces and adhere to dust particles.  Workers who work with such material also have a high level of exposure.  Studies have found alarming levels of PBDEs in workers who recycle, repair and maintain computers, as well as those who recycle.   


What can the government other agencies do to curb this

Specific guidelines are required for managing this plastic stream. The BFR loaded plastic cannot be allowed to be mixed with normal plastic and needs to segregate. Regulations or guidelines specifying usage or disposal should be enforced.


What are the health hazards to the informal sector that recycles this Plastics

The informal sector engaged in recycled plastic is completely unaware of the daily exposure that they might be subjected to. The units in which they grind or process this plastic are unventilated and increase the risk of the exposure. In our study, we noticed that there were no safety norms followed by workers.


Do you think that the persistence of an informal sector that mostly handles the e-waste, plastics and other forms of household waste are contributing to the wicked problem of improving the environment? 

The informal sector involved in recycling of e-waste, plastic, and other waste materials is doing a great job in preventing a lot of resources going to waste and reducing the load on the landfills. However, the process employed by them to recycle the hazardous material is a cause of major concern. There is a need to educate, and also ensure that hazardous waste is not handled in an unsafe manner in these recycling facilities.