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Frequently asked questions on Plastics and the Environment
 
Q. 1. Are Plastics eco-friendly?
  In General all man-made products, during manufacture, processing and disposal, have an impact on the environment. The issue therefore is, which of these products under consideration, will impose the least burden on the environment, and contribute to what is termed - 'sustainable development'.
As you read on, the haze created by the media might clear to reveal the genuine role of plastics in the environment. This is best expressed in the following quotation:

"There is a perpetual danger of thinking you can find out the truth merely by being clever.The truth is thatyou have to work doggedly at the facts" (Dr. Ronald Broadbent in the New Scientist - July '73)
Q. 2. How do we judge whether plastics are eco-friendly in relation to other materials?
 

Plastindia Foundation's Enviroplast Committee, developed a model or criteria, which may be used forqualifying materials as eco-friendly. The material or product in question should:

(a) Improve the qualify of life, particularly of the economically weaker sections of society.

(b) Reduce signaficantly the pollution load on the environment - and water and air in relation to materials that are replaced or substituted.

(c) Use the non-renewable energy resources more efficiently.

(d) Contribute to the presevation of land, water resources and forests.

(e) Lend itself to recycling and/or recovery of a significant part of the inherent energy.

Normally the tendency is to judge a product or item in terms of its waste disposal problem. This islikesaying that an ice-berge is as big as it appears above the surface.

Every process connected with a product, right from the time that basic raw materials are extracted from theearth to the time a product is produced, transported, used and disposed, has some impact on the environment.

A comparative study of products or applications based on measurements of energy-input and the pollution discharged to land, water and air, at every stage, is called a Life Cycle Analysis (L.C.A.) - or more simply 'the cradle to grave' approach.

Q. 3. Are plastics responsible for utilising a major share of the world's oil or hydrocarbon resources?
  NO.
It is important to recognise that plastics use less than 4% of the world's hydrocarbon resources. Approximately 90% is consumed for transportation, power generation and heating.

In general plastic products require less energy than products made from conventional materials, at comparableuse and performance levels.
Q. 4. Do Plasticss make-up a large part of the Municipal solid waste?
  NO

A study conducted by the National Environmental Engineering Reasearch Institute, Nagpur for the BMC, putsthe figure at 0.75%.

Even in Europe and U.S.A., with per capita consumption of plastics at over 50 kgs per annum (India is 2.7 kgsper annum), plastic waste makes up 8% of the total muncipal solid waste. The rest is made up of organic materials (33%), paper & board (30%), glass and metals (16%) and others (13%).

Plastics make a significant contribution by reducing the weight and volume of materials that are typically thrownaway. Unfortunately in India, waste is littered, instead of being disposed to facilitate collection and recycling.
Q. 5. Do Plastic grocery bags block drains during the rains?
  Unlikely.Plastic grocery bags are lighter (less dense) than water; hence, they float. This is why they accumulate on the beaches when disposed indiscriminately. In the case of a vertical grill in the drainage system, the water will flowthrough the grill with the plastic bags floating on the surface. In the case of a horizontal grill such as the one found on the roadside, the bags will be displaced by flowing water. By applying this logic, it is difficult to understand how plastic grocery bags are responsible for blocking drains. Perhaps, someone should carefullyobserve and determine what is the real porblem.
Q. 6. Are plastics toxic when used in contact with foods and medicines?
  NO.
Plastics are used world-over because they are safe for packaging of foods, medicines and child care products. A few examples are - milk pouches, edible oil container, ice-cream packs, blister packs for tablets and capsules.I.V.fluids and blood is collected and stored in plastic bags.

While plastics are safe for packaging of food and medicinal products, there are standards in each country,which specify the type of Additives and Pigments, which can be used safely for contact with foods.
Q. 7. Are plastics hazardous when buried in land-fills?
  NO.
Plastic waste is pre-dominantly eco-neutral or inert. It does not generate toxic leachates which contaminate the soil or ground water resources. On the contrary, those products which do biodegrade with by-products,may result in contaminating ground water resources.

Plastic consumer waste is easily compactible, and occupies less space inland-fills.

The fact that plastic waste is inert and does not biodegrade, makes segregation and recycling a more logical approach to waste managment, for urban areas.

The famous study on excavation of New York's land-fills by the University of Arizona, U.S.A., reveals that fooditems, such as beef-stakes, corn-on-cob, news papers - things which you might expect to biodegrade in a fewyears, are in recognisable form after 30 years. This is because, anaerobic biodegradation (in the absence of airand sun-light) is an extremely slow process. This process also generates methane gas from land-fills - which for its "green-house" effect is worse than carbon dioxide.

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