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Plastic Risks
Jul 22, 2017

[GS Paper III: (Conservation, Environmental Pollution and Degradation)]

A study by US scientists states that humans have created 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste since early 1950s when large-scale industrial production of the synthetic materials began. Of this, only 9% has been recycled and 12% incinerated. The remaining 79% lies in landfill sites polluting landscapes and oceans. 

  • The adaptability and durability have accelerated their use and production. However, none of the commonly used plastics is biodegradable.  
  • According to a 2014 report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “the overall natural capital cost of plastic use in the consumer goods sector each year is $75 billion”. 
  • In May 2017, an estimated 38 million pieces of trash was found on the beaches of the Henderson Island in the Pacific Ocean. This accumulation of plastics is even more disturbing when considering that Henderson Island is also a United Nations World Heritage site and one of the world’s biggest marine reserves. 

What are Plastics?

  • Plastics are macromolecules formed by Polymerization - a process by which individual units of similar molecules ("mers") combine together by chemical reactions to form large or macromolecules. 
  • There are mainly two types of Plastics:  thermoplastics and thermosetting plastics.
  • While thermoplastics can be softened by the application of heat and reshaped repeatedly, thermosetting plastics cannot be softened by the application of heat.
  • Bakelite was the first plastic made from synthetic components. It was used for its electrically nonconductive and heat-resistant properties in radio and telephone casings. It is widely used in diverse products such as kitchenware, jewelry, pipe stems, and children's toys.

Microbeads 

  • Microbeads are smaller forms of plastic, not more than 5 (micrometre) mm in size. They are mainly made up of polyethylene (PE) and contain polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon.
  • First patented in 1972, they replaced natural material like ground almonds, oatmeal and sea salt as exfoliating agent (to eliminate dead cells from the skin’s surface). Today, many cosmetics and toiletry products use it. 
  • They are also used in industries such as petroleum, textiles, printing and automobile due to their coarse nature. 

Impact of Microbeads

  • Due to their small size, microbeads collectively have a huge surface area, which allows them to absorb large quantities of toxins and other pollutants. 
  • Often mistaken for food by marine life, microbeads harm waterways, fish and shellfish when discharged through wastewater systems. 
  • The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) recently classified the non-biodegradable microbeads as unsafe for use in consumer products. 

Measures that can be taken 

  • Banning the use of microbeads in cosmetic industry: The Netherlands was the first country to ban cosmetic microbeads in 2014. The United States too enacted a law in 2015 to prohibit production of cosmetics containing microbeads. India should also enact such regulations. 
  • Reducing the use and recycling: There is a need to create an ecosystem that reduces the use of plastic and prevents its escape into the external environment. This must involve everyone, from the manufacturer to the user to the waste collector and the recycling authority. 

PT Facts

  • Microbeads are tiny, spherical beads typically 0.5 to 500 mm in size. 
  • They are made made up of polyethylene (PE) and are generally used in cosmetics such as facewash, shampoo as exfoliating agents.
  • BIS is the National Standard Body of India established under the BIS Act 1986 for standardization, marking and quality certification of goods. It is headquartered at New Delhi and works under the aegis of Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution. The BIS Standard Mark (ISI Mark) is a quality mark. 


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