The plastic waste management challenge - GulfToday

The plastic waste management challenge

Representational image.

Representational image.

The battle with plastic, a fossil-fuel byproduct which dominates many sectors of the economy from food products to fashion, is set for a stiff round of struggle in 2024 as the United Nations works at a treaty to control use of plastic. One of the means to do it is to make the companies that use plastic to pay for its waste management.

It has been found that the polyester shirts which are produced in their millions end in the landfills, and the cost of plastic waste management is borne by the governments and by the consumers. The treaty dealing with plastic waste management will not place the burden of the cost of waste management on the companies based on the principle of ‘polluter pays.’ The temptation to use plastic in textiles is unlikely to end because polyester is so much cheaper compared to sustainable fabric alternatives.

But with the decision to move away from fossil fuels as a long-term goal of dealing with controlling greenhouse gas emissions reached at COP28 in Dubai last month, restrictions on use of plastics are only likely to grow whatever the economic temptations. The only escape route is the idea of ‘net zero’ carbon emissions which help those emitting greater carbon emissions to get into carbon trade and buy carbon credits from those polluting less.

The numbers involving plastic waste are astronomical. Every year 350 million metric tonnes of Coca-Cola bottles, Mars wrappers and other plastic items are discarded. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the cost of global products was $370 million in 2019, but the waste management was ten times at $3 trillion.

Plastic waste generation reached 353 million metric tonnes in 2019, double than what it was in 2000. Of this, 40 per cent comes from the packaging industry, 12 per cent from consumer goods and 11 per cent from clothing and textiles. The companies which produce and use plastic do not bear any of the cost as things stand today. It has also been found that bio-degradable plastic is costlier than virgin plastic derived from fossil fuel.

There is a need to find ways of making the alternatives material for plastic to be made economically viable, or find the technology to make the use of plastic to be less hazardous to the climate. If the use of plastic cannot be avoided completely, then the alternative is to fix the proportion of plastic that can be used. It is also to be remembered that cotton yarn is not that organic either with monoclonal cotton varieties like Bt cotton in use in many parts of the world.

The European Union and California, according to reports, are looking at legislation which will force the fashion industry to produce and discard textiles with plastic content in a ‘sustainable way’. It could mean that the quantity of carbon emissions will have to be fixed at what is defined as ‘sustainable.’ This would lead to a lot of bargaining on both sides, and they have to agree on reasonable levels of emission. The environmentalists are likely to argue that phasing out plastics is the ideal solution even as phasing out fossil fuels is seen as the ultimate goal. But the time it would take to achieve it would differ widely, and 2070 to 2100 could be the target years.

Meanwhile, there has to be a deep search for alternative materials like paper, based on sustainable bamboo farming, or biological products like silk from the silkworms. Silk has been a costly affair and how it can be made for wider use on an industrial scale would remain a huge challenge.

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